‘The Last Duel’ Review: A Challenging Epic Fueled By Great Performances

Ridley Scott's The Last Duel is an admirably made historical epic, but suffers from exploitative sequences that falter the film's emotional resonance.

*Trigger warning: This review may contain mentions of rape and adultery, as they are the main topics of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel*

Sir Ridley Scott returns to the period epic after three failed attempts with Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and Exodus: Gods and Kings with The Last Duel, based on the book of the same name written by Eric Jager. And while some may be excited at seeing Matt Damon duke Adam Driver out in a medieval duel, moviegoers should know that the film is not at all about that. Instead, Scott presents a story told through three perspectives, à la Rashomon, where the story’s central character, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), claims to have been raped by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Her husband, Jean (Matt Damon), then challenges Le Gris to a duel to the death to prove her wife’s accusations, and the audience gets to see how the men’s perspective favors them both as heroes until Marguerite’s side reveals “the truth.”

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As hard as the movie’s subject matter is, it’s even worse when you have to sit through a prolonged and exploitative rape sequence not once but twice, as the film shows Le Gris’ perspective before revealing what happened through Marguerite’s. Not many changes, except that Marguerite’s version is far more violent and abusive than Jacques perceives it, but it doesn’t keep the fact that both sequences shouldn’t have been included in the film. The audience does not feel anything but sheer distaste by seeing a helpless woman abused by a toxic male who believes he can get any women he wants through his masculine force. Le Gris will then seek protection from the Church who will absolve him of his sins and the Court (ran by Ben Affleck’s Count Pierre D’Alençon) who will protect him by immediately dismissing his allegations. We feel more for Marguerite when she accuses Le Gris to Jean and tells his husband what happened instead of showing it through both perspectives. A good movie needs a careful balance between showing and telling. In this case, the latter should’ve been preferred for dealing with such a heavy subject matter, primarily when both perspectives of the rape serve absolutely nothing to the story and the characters and only seems to be there to exploit them.

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Of course, the main story centers around it, which alone serves as a problem in a post-#MeToo era. Still, there are ways to address rape and adultery on screen without it feeling shamelessly exploitative, such as talking about it when showing it feels completely unnecessary. Both talking scenes are superb and reveal more about the characters’ perspectives and emotional arcs than the actual rape scenes. For example, in Jean de Carrouges’ point of view, when Marguerite tells her of the rape, he immediately becomes more caring and diplomatic in front of her, apologizing for not having protected her and now must bring Jacques Le Gris to justice. In contrast, Marguerite’s point of view sees Jean as an abusive husband who spites Marguerite as he thinks she brings shame to the House Carrouges and only challenges Le Gris to a duel for his self-interest instead of defending his wife’s honor. It makes for a fascinating dynamic between the two characters, who are both superbly performed.

The film is an excellent vehicle for Matt Damon to showcase his leading man talents once again, especially coming after Ford v. Ferrari. It doesn’t take long for the audience to get swept away by Jean’s gallantry towards Marguerite, only for it to get flipped over once Marguerite’s perspective gets shown and reveals the real side of Jean. Likewise, both portrayals of le Carrouges are deftly brought to life by Damon, as he goes from respectable to despicable in mere minutes once “the truth” reveals itself. The same can be said for Driver, whose friendship with le Carrouges becomes a brotherly bond once Le Gris’ life is saved in battle by Jean, only for Jacques’ perspective to reveal the exact opposite.

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Scott creates his version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where no account of the story can truly be trusted since all three protagonists have lived through the events in their head and will always recall them to fit their narrative and never reveal the “true” truth. We may even question Marguerite’s version of “the truth” since the first two testimonies are tainted to serve Jacques Le Gris and Jean le Carrouges’ heroic feats. Still, it doesn’t take long for Scott to reveal how purely despicable a patriarchal society shuts down women and believes their warped version of “science” (alluding that it is “science” that women who feel no pleasure during sex cannot get pregnant), and how the two leading men have virtually no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

When they battle, the only person the audience is inclined to root for is Marguerite because she’s the only person who was thwarted into the conflict between the two and has something to lose. The other men only want to fight to prove their “worth to God.” Still, they’re not fighting for recognition through a higher power and accessing paradise once they eventually perish, but to be feared and respected by the masses while ignoring Marguerite’s plight for true justice. In that regard, Jodie Comer completely steals the entire film from Damon and Driver. She delivers a high-caliber performance fueled with emotional power, highly deserved by the praise and potential Oscar chatter. Comer is one of the best up-and-coming actresses working today. I wouldn’t be surprised if she does get nominated for an Oscar for her role, as she brilliantly transposes Marguerite’s anguish through minimal facial expressions, from the way she looks at Jean in spite, or the way she sees Jacques for who he truly is just by observing how he behaves himself in public. It’s a performance for the ages, and it’s a shame Scott underuses her so much here. Ben Affleck’s Pierre D’Alençon seems more critical to the story than Marguerite’s, even if Affleck’s screen time is minimal here.

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Speaking of Affleck, he’s the worst part of the film. For starters, his accent doesn’t work, but what’s more egregious is how his acting talents are completely wasted in favor of a womanizing Count who says a slew of anachronistic F-bombs and gets drunk all the time. No, that’s all he does. It may sound like a wrong description, but that’s all he does in this movie, and it’s especially shameful when it reunites Affleck and Damon co-writers for the first time since Good Will Hunting! With a story as emotionally charged as The Last Duel, there was material for every actor to shine and for the perspectives to indeed come to fruition inside the best period epic Ridley Scott has done since Gladiator.

Because Scott truly knows how to direct period action unlike any other filmmaker, it goes way back from 1977’s The Duellists. His scale is unmatched, as he and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski fill the frame with sweeping charges, while the blade of an axe, sword, or knife may result in a total bloodbath. While brief, the action enriches the characters and deepens their menacing demeanor, as both protagonists want to be perceived as heroes of France and servants to the King, who will fight to the death in the field of battle if needed to honor their nation. Any act from Marguerite that’s perceived as unsatisfactory to Jean will be reprimanded, and he will make it known without any remorse for his actions towards his wife.

If The Last Duel had focused on the characters that drive the story instead of trying to shock its viewers with senseless sequences of rape and sexuality, it would’ve been a better movie. When the characters have drawn-out dialogue scenes, the film shines the most, with Driver, Damon, and Comer being the true highlights of the movie. Driver is highly theatrical and expressive, which contrasts well with Comer’s minimalist performance, also her career-best. It’s not Scott’s best movie, but it’s an admirably made one, especially when his last few projects have been either hit or miss (full disclosure: I unabashedly loved Alien: Covenant) and makes me look forward to his next movie, House of Gucci, which is set to release next month! Eighty-three years old and still churning out films at a consistent rate. Bravo.

The Last Duel is now playing in theatres everywhere.