Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Last Duel - Review


As far as historical, epic dramas go, no director has ventured to that well quite as often as Ridley Scott. Whether it’s the Crusades in Jerusalem or the bloody arenas of Ancient Rome, the battlefields of history call out to him every few years or so. And while the title of The Last Duel suggests more glimpses into the world’s sword filled past, it’s surprising how little of the film is actually focused on the last duel to the death in France’s history. 

Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a respected knight known for his bravery and skill on the battlefield. Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) is a squire whose intelligence and eloquence makes him one of the most admired nobles in court. When Le Gris viciously assaults Carrouges' wife (Jodie Comer), she steps forward to accuse her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy. The ensuing trial by combat, a grueling duel to the death, places the fate of all three in God's hands.

Much was made of the seemingly odd casting of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in this historical drama. Surprisingly, one of those performances is precisely what the film needed. Damon is fine, he feels out of place and but serviceable. But Affleck is great. Every choice is top notch as the smarmy, ego-centric lord that he is comes through with each line reading. Still some weird choices with the hair and makeup though. 

The two actually noteworthy performances come from the other half of this drama. Adam Driver, unlike the two mentioned before, looks he came straight out of the time period and he always delivers an excellent performance regardless of material. It doesn’t take long for the film to establish that behind the charm and good looks, he’s an awful person just like the rest. And finally, there’s the star of the show, Jodie Comer. Those familiar with her past work shouldn’t be surprised, but her performance is so masterful, it’s a shame the film sidelines her during its climax in favor of the joust.

Scott as a director is among the greats, and his visual style works for the gritty historical period and battles portrayed throughout. However, one can’t help but wonder the differences this film would have if handled from a wholly female perspective. In its current state, the film features a three act structure not unlike Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The first act, written by Matt Damon, features the story through the eyes of Damon’s Jean de Carrouges. The second, written by Ben Affleck, is the story through the eyes of Jacque Le Gris. And the third, and markably best segment, written by Nicole Holofcener, finally gets to the real truth of Lady Marguerite. 

And while the first two sequences are well constructed and portray the story they are going for, the third segment is where the film soars. By getting to the perspective of the woman at the center of this story, we ditch the supporting perspectives that should be ancillary to this narrative. Even switching the order of the presentation would have a better effect than the current one, which mostly leaves the viewer beaten down by the falsehoods and frustrated that the lady herself is being sidelined for two-thirds of the film. 

The Last Duel is an effectively crafted and harrowing story in a time where justice so rarely rang true. But its lack of interest in its own main character and her story feels like an anchor that drags down its technical achievements and all the other bits it gets right. Ridley Scott does a fine job, as always, but it’s a film that feels like a more interesting choice in the director’s chair could’ve done wonders for a film that ultimately feels forgettable. 

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