The Last Duel (2021) Movie Review (Written by Hèctor A. Gonzalez)
The first of two Ridley Scott films this year, The Last Duel, takes the Rashomon route to deliver a medieval tale about power, misogyny, and “love” amidst angst. Although it has a piddling narrative imbalance towards its grave themes, the production quality, sound work, and a fantastic performance by Jodie Comer make it a hefty epic.
Ridley Scott knows how to produce films with outstanding quality, even though some don’t end up working as a whole. At 83-years-old, he is still delivering film after film, work after work. He is one of the few directors who constantly provides big-budget epics for an older audience, which is rare in an age where most blockbusters are marketed for the young. Now, in 2021, Scott is back with not only one but two pictures, just like when he did in 2017 (All the Money in the World and Alien: Covenant). The first one that has arrived is a medieval epic based on the book by Eric Jager: The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France.
This is a tale of two knights: Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), an admired knight known for his valor and dexterity on the battlegrounds, and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), an intelligent and articulate squire respected by the nobles of the court, the left-hand man of Count Pierre d\"Alençon (Ben Affleck). When Le Gris viciously assaults Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), she accuses the attacker, an act of courage and resistance that puts her life at risk. King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) decides to ensure the trial by combat, a duel to the death. The fate of these three is now in God’s hands.
It all begins with the duel’s preparation; Jean and Jacques are putting on their armor and selecting their weapons while Marguerite puts on a black gown, waiting on the combat results for her fate. When the two knights square up against each other, we are transported to the beginning of the tale from the perspective of the different leads (Jean, Jacques, and finally, Marguerite). This Rashomon-esque technique isn’t used a lot because it doesn’t work in every situation or narrative. However, in The Last Duel, it finds its fixation and works on most occasions because it is well flourished and rendered, within a few minor issues regarding its semantic structure.
It has three chapters; all of them are slight renditions of the truth and written by three different people. The first act deals with Jean de Carrouges, and Matt Damon writes it. It focuses on his tale of what he refers to as protecting his “honor,” which in reality is a masquerade for blatant misogyny on the women of 14th-century France, most specifically his wife, Marguerite. The second one deals with the accused, Jacques Le Gris (the man who betrayed his “friend”) and is lettered by Ben Affleck. Here is where the differences between the stories are noticed: his encounter with Marguerite, who saves the other, and the act of rape. The only problem with the writing in these two segments is that it is obvious who wrote what.
The third and final act is where we see actual truth, written by Nicole Holofcener and centered around Marguerite, and it is the best chapter out of the three. For some reason, this is the shortest, even though she endured the most cruelty and atrocities. It wasn’t a marriage of love or empathy; it was a transaction between royalty and squire. Their stories were never about Marguerite. They weren’t fighting over her; it was always about them. As Marguerite said: “You are risking my life so that you can save your pride.” With that line alone, it evokes the brutal essence of The Last Duel—men who use power to impersonate what they call honor and treat women as objects or property.
In many ways, only Ridley Scott could have made this movie with such production quality and grandeur. Unfortunately, not many directors can handle big-budget period pieces. However, it is admirable what he wanted to pull off here, both in topics and filmmaking-wise. To this day, the core themes of The Last Duel are present. It shows how appalling life in the Middle Ages has been for women and how they were treated. Yet, the touch on its issues isn’t as effective as it must be in the first two chapters. Nevertheless, the third adds polished layers of sorrow to Marguerite’s story, making it potent. There is one scene in particular that, in my opinion, doesn\"t need to be seen twice and seems questionable to keep it.
In the end, putting aside all the pacing, accent, and minor structure predicaments, it all works out. The magnificence of the period elements keeps us, the audience, engaged with brutal fight scenes, the deliverance of the atmosphere and sound scope, and the outstanding performances, most notably Jodie Comer, who fiercely steals every scene with just mere looks and facial expressions. And a shout-out to Ben Affleck, who captures our attention with his blonde beard and hair with few lines or scenes. I never expected this to take such a vicious turn and still be entrancing and absorbing beyond its many minor faults; this is Scott’s best film in quite a while.
The Last Duel gets 4/5!!!