The Last Duel (144 minutes, not including the end credits) is a period drama about the truth, the truths we tell ourselves, and the distance between them. Based on a true story (by way of the 2004 book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager), it is the tale of two friends whose lives take them in very different directions, leading to jealousy, resentment, betrayal and revenge. It is well-acted, intriguingly structured and culminates in the suitably brutal title clash. The nature of the plot has it revisit several scenes multiple times, from three perspectives. It is an interesting approach to this conflict, yet not all of those scenes are deep enough to support three tellings. Though I did like it, I question the way it reveals some of its truths and, occasionally, whose side the filmmakers are really on. Still, it is an impressive production with far more strong moments than weak ones.
The story takes place in the 1380s. Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris are squires fighting for King Charles VI. After de Carrouges disobeys orders from their Count, he quickly falls out of favor, while Le Gris rises up to knight. de Carrouges is convinced Le Gris has turned the Count against him for some reason, leading to animosity between the men that ends in the final legally sanctioned duel in the history of France, as part of a trial by combat.
The events are related in chapters. The first chapter is from the viewpoint of Jean de Carrouges, played with anger and pride by Matt Damon. He sees himself as doing his duty to God and his King, just to be betrayed by a man he considered to be his friend. Chapter two goes back over the same period of time, only through the eyes of Le Gris, played by Adam Driver as a man who believes he deserves everything he has, mainly because it is his. He doesn’t understand why de Carrouges would think him anything besides honorable. The third chapter circles around the important bits as seen by de Carrouges wife, Marguerite. She is played by Jodie Comer and is the most nuanced character in the movie.
While the two men each see the other differently than they see themselves, the differences are largely in perceived motivations. Neither of them has any comprehension of how Marguerite really feels. Nor do they care to learn. They are men and she is a woman, therefore she must know her place and do as she is told. Comer has the most complex role because she needs to be the loving wife, the alluring beauty and then the real Marguerite. The slight twists she gives to a smile or a small line of dialogue keep even the most repetitive scenes compelling.
Damon cowrote the screenplay with Nicole Holofcener (which probably explains the amount of attention given to the female POV) and Ben Affleck, who also appears as the arrogant Count Pierre, who takes a liking to Le Gris. Affleck, with blonde hair, is good at portraying an obnoxious, entitled jerk in love with his own power; however, he seems a little miscast. I couldn’t help to think that he underplayed the sliminess of the character. Damon leans into the grunginess and Driver seems at home as a man hungry for status, but Affleck just kind of seems like Ben Affleck.
Along with Comer’s performance, the movie’s strengths lie in the way director Ridley Scott handles the Rashomon-esque narrative. The pacing is slow, as it has to be so the audience can catch all the details. Though war is a constant part of these people’s lives, Scott never allows it to overwhelm the screenplay’s message about gender inequality and the ease with which men can become undone by self-righteousness. That is until the titular duel. Having been built to for over two hours, it does not disappoint. It is violent and true to the characters/story that preceded it. Going into The Last Duel, I expected the duel to be thrilling. It says something about how interested I was in the story it was telling that I wasn’t thrilled, yet I didn’t care. Ridley Scott may be known more for action and sci-fi, but he proves again here that he can make an epic of ideas, rather than merely one of spectacle.
4 out of 5
Matt Damon as Sir Jean de Carrouges
Adam Driver as Jacques Le Gris
Jodie Comer as Marguerite de Carrouges
Ben Affleck as Pierre d'Alençon
Harriet Walter as Nicole de Carrouges
Alex Lawther as King Charles VI
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon