Sometimes you have to let story tellers spread their wings…
Make no mistake, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is VERY self indulgent, but when storytellers like Scott, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are involved with the words on the page you are forced to at the very least to pay attention to what they have to say.
Based on actual events, the film unravels long-held assumptions about France’s last sanctioned duel between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), two friends turned bitter rivals. Carrouges is a respected knight known for his bravery and skill on the battlefield. Le Gris is a Norman squire whose intelligence and eloquence make him one of the most admired nobles in court. When Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), is viciously assaulted by Le Gris, a charge he denies, she refuses to stay silent, stepping 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.
Along with writer Nicole Holofcener (a noted filmmaker in her own right); Scott, Damon and Affleck have basically made a $100 million + version of Rashomon here…which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but that also makes The Last Duel a film that has a rough start that you can’t anticipate until it’s ultimate conclusion.
Even saying it was a rough start is a bit misleading. Early on, it very much feels like the sweeping period pieces that we’re used to from Ridley Scott.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it’s hardly moving the needle either for those of us who have seen Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and so on and then something changed.
As the first third of the movie ended…the perspective shifted…and that’s when it got interesting.
This story is told from the perspective of Jean de Carrouges (played by Damon) but also that of Jacques Le Gris (played by Adam Driver) as his friend turned bitter enemy but also from the perspective of Carrouges wife Marguerite (played by Jodie Comer). It all comes out in that order. While the first 1/3rd of the film is somewhat jarring, the other perspectives give us a much grander view of the overall narrative and it’s really impeccably structured from top to bottom with some great set pieces and a real sense of scale…as long as you can appreciate the way this is being told to you.
It’s a $100 Million dollar film, made for cinephiles. I’m not sure if that’s either good OR bad from a marketing standpoint…but it’s now very much a thing to be sure and it ultimately succeeds thanks to the high caliber of performance across the board from all involved.
While there are certain moments in the narrative that get repeated, absolutely NONE of them get recycled and there’s where actors at the top of their game come into play. No one character really has any dramatic shift in the film and we’re reminded of the importance of perspective in any story as each actor brings real nuance to their performances.
Damon is fantastic as Carrouges as he allows his character to be rugged and noble but slighted and envious all at the same time with only the slightest shift in personality throughout the narrative. Driver is great opposite him as the noble and loyal friend who is a little more ambitious and has a little more skill at navigating the upper classes then his friend Jean de Carrouges. Driver’s Le Gris is likable but also a little slimy considering his tastes for the more decadent aspects of high society living that were common back then.
The real magic comes with Jodie Comer’s Marguerite who quite frankly is a prop and setting dressing in the first 1/3rd of the movie but evolves into an iconic female character who put her life quite literally on the line in order to be heard in a world full of men who judged her first and foremost on her gender. Comer really allows the character to simmer and eventually come alive the more the truth of it all unfolds. And with Ben Affleck in the background of it all as Pierre d’Alençon; a lascivious French count, it’s all a really beautiful thing to watch unfurl.
At the end of it all, even with a bunch of American and British actors playing French people; The Last Duel is a masterful effort in storytelling that you won’t be able to look away from…even when it’s reminding you of how smart it actually is.