On paper, The Last Duel should be a massive misfire. A Fourteenth Century set epic that takes on the #MeToo movement? Especially one largely made by men? Sure, that’ll work. In fact, this film probably should have been a spectacular disaster. Instead, the movie has a deft point to make, one that it hammers home with lucidity by the end. In serving as a vivid reminder that men were also trash way back in the Dark Ages, this is a largely successful work. Mixing a critique of toxic masculinity with period-set action may have been a risky high-wire act, but The Last Duel manages to pull it off. That alone is worthy of some attention.
The Last Duel isn’t perfect, but it works far more often than it doesn’t. Especially when you consider Ridley Scott‘s age, the fact that he’s as engaged here as he is (which isn’t always the case), is pretty impressive. His steady hand allows the film to navigate some tricky material. Believe me, too, this material is very tricky. Whereas other filmmakers might have let the movie go off the rails, and in other projects, Scott has even been guilty of that, but here, that’s decidedly not the case.
Based on the nonfiction book by Eric Jager, the film details the last sanctioned duel, one declared by King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). Brought to his attention by respected knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) are charges that his squire and former friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) raped his wife, Lady Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). The Lady Marguerite claims that Le Gris forced himself upon her, while he argues that she’s made it all up. Coming on the heels of the friendship between de Carrouges and Le Gris dissolving over time, the former sees the only way to fully resolve this is a fight to the death. Should he win, he’ll be proven right and gain respect. If he loses, however, Lady Marguerite will be seen as a liar and put to death.
Divided into chapters showing the point of view of each of the three main characters, we see how they interpret the events. One of the segments is suggested to be the truth, but some degree of leeway is given. As things progress, more shades to each character is given. For example, the Le Gris chapter brings the lusty Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) into more focus, both showing his affection for Le Gris, but also his distain for de Carrouges, which comes into play more during the third section, focusing on Lady Marguerite. It all leads back to the duel which opens the flick, though with lots more context. By the end, your allegiances may have changed more than once, with the impact of the duel lingering long after the credits have rolled.
The cast is strong, though Ben Affleck and Jodie Comer easily lead the way. Affleck goes all in on the hedonism and debauchery of the character, resulting in something incredibly fun within a dour flick. It would have been easy for Affleck to feel completely out of a different movie, but he somehow anchors it in the reality of the story. Without question, he’s best in show. Comer is excellent as well, though she really only comes into focus during the final section. Matt Damon is fine, though certainly the most dry of the quartet, while Adam Driver is his reliably committed self. Damon and Driver may be the most focused on of the cast, but Affleck and Comer walk away with the film. Supporting players include the aforementioned Alex Lawther, as well as Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, and many more.
Ridley Scott can be a wild card behind the camera, but this is Scott on his game. His direction is brutal and brutally efficient, helping to give the material extra heft and preventing it from ever being a parody. Now, Scott does allow the script that Affleck and Damon co-wrote with Nicole Holofcener to have humor, mostly in Affleck’s lusty and hilarious Pierre. Otherwise? Serious as a heart attack. The visuals by Dariusz Wolski are crisp, the score by Harry Gregson-Williams is effective, and Scott oversees it all quite well. If there’s a complaint, it’s that he doesn’t pace things too well in an admittedly overlong movie. Affleck, Damon, and Holofcener make the first section not particularly interesting, before really finding their groove in the second and especially third segments.
The Last Duel isn’t quite a huge Oscar player, but look for some potential Academy Award attention below the line. Beyond that, it’s just a solid throwback kind of epic. The flick takes a modern eye towards old injustices, and that’s interesting. Even if it has more of a blunt tool on hand than a scalpel, it hits its mark while making its point. Give it a shot and you’ll almost assuredly find more than enough to like.