While one could argue that Ridley Scott’s best work is behind him, they would also have to agree that he continues to be one of the most prolific directors working today. I can’t think of any other director who has managed to release not one but two blockbusters this year. The fact he carried this off at the grand age of 84 as well as having to contend with a worldwide pandemic is not only testament to his skill but also his dedication as a filmmaker.
Of his two films this year, his most recent release, The House of Gucci (2021), seems to be getting more publicity with the frankly more interesting The Last Duel being mostly overlooked. It is no surprise that it failed to make much of a dent at the box office during its theatrical run, although I believe this was more down to a poor marketing campaign than Scott’s belief in millennials having more interest in their mobile phones than his historical drama.
Based on true events, The Last Duel tells the story of Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a knight who challenges his friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) to a duel after his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer) claims that Jacques raped her.
Jean decides to take the matter to court but knowing Jacques is protected by his friend, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) realizes the only way for there to be justice is to challenge Jacques to a duel to the death. In the event of Jean losing the duel Marguerite will be burnt to death.
The events leading up to the duel are separated into three chapters, reflecting the decidedly different perspectives of the three main characters.
To date The Last Duel has only managed to recoup around $30 million on a reported $100 million budget. This is probably one of Scott’s largest scale flops to date which is a shame as it is certainly one of his more impressive films of late.
Although it is the lesser of Ridley Scott’s historical epics, failing to live up to the lofty heights of what I believe to be his best, Gladiator (2000) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005), it still has a great deal to recommend with some terrific performances, an interesting script and high production values.
Now The Last Duel isn’t the first film of Scott’s that hasn’t fared as well at the box office as expected. What is surprising is how little known it seems to be amongst the cinema going public. Not only is this surprising considering that it’s a Ridley Scott film, but also when you take into consideration that this is the first film co-written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck since their Oscar winning Good Will Hunting (1997).
Co-written with Can You Ever Forgive Me (2018) writer Nicole Holofcener, The Last Duel’s script takes a Rashomon (1950) approach to proceedings, telling the same story three times but from different viewpoints. This gives each of the principal cast an excellent opportunity to show their skills as actors, with their characters subtly (and sometimes unsubtly) changing depending on whose viewpoint we are currently focusing on.
The inclusion of Holofcener as a co-writer was no doubt to give the film a clear feminist viewpoint which was probably needed, especially when coming to tell Marguerite’s recollection of events. With the ‘Me Too’ movement still fresh in everyone’s mind it is shocking to see how certain things remain the same even over 600 years later. This is especially true during the trial where Marguerite is continuously questioned and berated. Females of this period truly had no rights which is made especially clear when the statement is made that “it isn’t a crime to rape a woman”.
Although certain elements of the script could be considered “on the nose”, it still manages to create an emotional response and each version of the story makes you question the truth. The script is ambiguous in this matter, never giving a clear answer, potentially because there is no definitive answer on who is telling the truth.
Jodie Comer and Adam Driver certainly are the most impressive performers, with Driver managing to make his morally detestable character even appear charming. Even in his own take on the story it would be difficult to argue that his character could truly be though an honorable man, with his take on having sex with Marguerite being somewhat reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). Jacques is so debauched that it seems like he doesn’t even realize what he has done wrong.
Comer probably has the most difficult role. Clearly the script favors her characters’ take on events with her coming across as the most sympathetic. In each version of the story she is treated poorly, although in her version she comes across as a much stronger person than originally evidenced in the earlier chapters. Comer is careful not to overplay these aspects with these subtle differences being perfectly integrated in her performance.
As impressive as Comer and Driver are, this isn’t to say that Matt Damon doesn’t still contribute a good performance, but this is nowhere his best work. In each variation of the tale his Jean comes across as impetuous, quick to make decisions for better or worse. He is clearly brave and a skilled fighter, but he is a hard character to like no matter whose take on events we are viewing.
The overall feeling of the film is cold and bleak, so thank god for Ben Affleck who brings some levity to proceedings. While he seems somewhat out of place in a period piece, especially whilst sporting his peroxide blonde locks, he is great fun as Jaques deceitful friend Pierre. No matter which version of the tale we are being told, Affleck comes across as an asshole.
I especially enjoyed the scenes where he would go out of his way to put down Damon, with the two having an antagonist relationship, the polar opposite of their real life friendship. It was initially planned that Affleck would play the role that ultimately went to Driver before opting for the smaller role of Pierre. While it would have been nice to see Affleck have more screen time I don’t think he would have bettered Driver’s work and seems more at place in the role he finally settled on.
Compared to Scott’s more popular medieval epics, The Last Duel is certainly the least action heavy, with a stronger focus on character and the behind the scenes politics of the time. This isn’t to say the film is totally devoid of action. Before we reach the Last Duel of the title we are treated to a number of small scale battles that are viscerally brutal. They are interspersed through the early stages of each of the chapters and help break up what could otherwise be considered a lengthy and wordy drama.
Even being more of a drama than an action film, Scott still creates some beautiful images throughout the film’s 153 minutes run time. Working once again with director of photography Dariusz Wolski, the visuals are suitably bleak, matching the overall tone of the film. In fact, I don’t remember any sunlight until the closing moments of the film.
Volski has proven himself to be a master of creating striking images even with what some would consider a drab color palette. Just look at his work on Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998) to see perfect examples of this.
I must also note the quality musical score from composer Harry Gregson-Williams which is a fine accompaniment to the on screen drama. It is certainly one of his most noteworthy scores of recent years.
It is a shame that The Last Duel didn’t make much of a dent at the box office as it is something of a return to form for Ridley Scott after a number of disappointing ventures. Now it is in no way perfect, but in comparison to some of the other so-called blockbusters of the year it turns out to be an intelligently written drama with just enough action to keep things ticking over.
Plot: 4/5 Acting: 3.5/5 Action: 3.5/5 Overall: 3.8/5