Movie Review - The Last Duel (2021)

Ridley Scott’s newest medieval epic shows that, despite his age, his quality of filmmaking has not degraded.

A retelling of the historic last French duel, The Last Duel, is a story about how men of Medieval France were blind to their most negative attributes. They let their sins control their actions and desires, inevitably placing those they swear they care for in unfortunate situations.

As if it were a book or play, the story of The Last Duel is told in three separate accounts by each of the films’ leads, with each penned by a different writer. Because of this, scenes are shown more than once. This is critical, because, for many viewers, the particular subject matter of this film may be too real to bare, no matter the way it is told.

The Last Duel follows French knights Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, who partake in a duel after Jean’s wife, Marguerite, is raped by Jacques. The rape is shown in detail twice, viewed by both the perpetrator and the victim, as to show Jacques’ biased account and the horror of the actual event depicted from Marguerite’s perspective. I looked away from the screen both times because of the disturbing visuals, so I completely understand the event being focused on so heavily causing people to choose not to see the film.

The first of which is the account of Matt Damon’s Sir Jean de Carrouges, as written by Damon himself. This section of the story seems to happen at a rapid pace, with each event given barely any time to breath. The pacing, in the moment, is quite jarring, but you will be thankful for it later. If I were to ever re-watch it, this issue would likely disappear.

Carrouges thinks himself to be a courageous, honorable knight, who loves his wife. He views himself as a warrior deserving of great esteem, who believes his sinful attributes are what make him deserving of title and esteem. This can be seen at the beginning of the film where his impatience and recklessness cause him to begin his charge solely against the enemy, thinking his men followed him because he inspired them.

The second account is that of Jean’s former comrade in arms, Sir Jacques Le Gris, as played by Adam Driver and written by Ben Affleck. Jacques is portrayed as a comrade in arms willing to help Jean early on, only to slowly become consumed by his greed and pride by the end. However, when the story is shown from his perspective, it is clear that he was destined for a life of sin.

Driver plays him with a level of gravitas and theatricality akin to his role as Kylo Ren, which grows as Jacques acquires further status and fortune as time passes. Like his sinful desires, Jacques’s appearance grows more exquisite, with him adorning more elegant clothing. Whether it be gold adornments on his armor or lengthy black cloaks, the image he wishes to portray himself in is clear.

Jacques revels in the lust, fortune and power, which what leads him to lusting over Marguerite. His waning opinion of Jean, combined with the desire for what should not be his causes him to read subtext that isn’t there. He assumes she wants the affair as much as he does, and unfortunately for Marguerite, Jacques believes he will always get what he wants.

This belief stems from Jacques’s relationship with Affleck’s Count Pierre d’Alencon, who quickly took a liking to him due to his more open and accepting demeanor. Affleck almost disappears into this particular role. I had to remind myself constantly while watching the film that it was him, as I genuinely had a difficult time believing it.

The scene of the rape is shown to be watered down in Jacques’s perspective, as he sees her lack of desire as a sign that it is what she wants. He places his assumptions onto her as if she were any of the women he typically lounges around with. Her screams and yells in protest are far quieter and she seems to submit more easily to his advances.

Compare this to the retelling in the final third of the story, as depicted from the guise of Marguerite (played by Jodie Comer) and written by Nicole Holofencer, where we see the real emotions at play with the real telling of the disturbing event. Jacques is presented as a horrifying giant of a man; a monster clawing at Marguerite’s feet. Comer’s performance here is far more frightened and emotive, as we see the pain and agony thrown across her face as she cries out until her voice is raged.

This is further amplified by her state of depression after the assault, with her showing little to no emotion at all. When she dulls up the courage to tell Jean about the rape, he is far more aggressive, angry at her for the possibility of it damaging his family name and further ruining his reputation.

Instead of seeking justice for his wife, as shown in his perspective, he is consumed with revenge. He seeks to restore his pride, that he had destroyed due to his own actions. Jean is shown to be a selfish man that only cares about passing his lineage, rather than the selfless one he believes himself to be. Damon plays both versions of the character excellently, making them feel almost like separate entities.

When I watched Jean’s perceptive I was surprised at the care he showed his wife, respecting her wishes and refusing to question her description of the events. I immediately knew something had to be up upon seeing Jacques’s side of the story, which was unfortunately proven in Margeuerite’s chapter.

I applaud Scott, Affleck and Holofencer for presenting the time period as it actually was, while Damon initially showcases it with rose colored glasses to make it all the more daunting. One of the biggest complaints of Scott’s previous historically-based works was the lack of realism implemented within the fiction, and I believe he and the writers found a near-perfect balance here.

The set design works in tandem with Scott’s direction to give you a feel for the grossness of the time period, something that only begins to wane in the care Marguerite actually shows to the people that serve her. For a brief moment, the world becomes brighter, before it is of course plunged into darkness.

The action sequences of the film are violent and dirty, akin to Scott’s work in Gladiator. These are not the elegant pieces you might find in action-heavy blockbusters. While he does not overtly depict the violence of Medieval battle, Scott does not fully shy away from it either, especially in the duel itself.

It was also a delight to see The End of the F***ing World’s Alex Lawther as King Charles IV. He was a surprisingly marvelous fit for the role, showcasing the King’s naivete with his consistently joyous expressions no matter the horrors occurring in front of him.

Even more understated is probably Isabel Kennedy, who played the King’s wife. Despite having no lines of dialogue, she clearly portrayed the Queen’s emotions about the rape charge in her physicality alone. Little moments like her refusing to touch the King during the duel and grimacing during Marguerite’s account of the events tell us more than enough about the character.

Because of all these amazing performances, I can forgive Billy Ray Cyrus’s inclusion in the film. He’s far from bad, but he is not even remotely close to being the same level as the rest of the cast. Luckily, this was not very noticeable in my initial viewings, but I imagine it would be more apparent upon re-watch.

The Last Duel was my first non-blockbuster film in theaters in over a year, and I wouldn’t count against that affecting my perception of the film. However, it is definitely the best film I’ve seen so far this year. I may have no desire to re-watch it any time soon (or ever for that matter), but it is absolutely a film most people should see at least once.

Rating: 9.5/10