Four-time Oscar nominee Ridley Scott knows his way around historical epics, with 2000’s Gladiator remaining his best to date. 2021’s The Last Duel, based on true events and loaded with A-list stars, isn’t quite in the same league as Gladiator but does come in a close second among all of Scott’s ventures into historical territory.
The Last Duel brings to life the final officially sanctioned duel in France. It’s unnecessary to have more than a vague idea of what life was like in 14th century France prior to watching The Last Duel. That said, it does help to do a little surface-level research on the actual duel to fully appreciate the approach taken by screenwriters Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nicole Holofcener.
The Last Duel is set in Normandy and plays out as a “he said, he said, she said,” with each participant in the tale afforded a chance to tell their side of the story leading up to the titular event. Their chapters are introduced with title cards declaring what you’re about to be exposed to is the truth, an impossibility given the many ways the participants’ stories vary in insignificant as well as major ways.
The first chapter is told from knight Jean de Carrouges’ perspective. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is revealed to be a fierce, battle-hardened soldier with a fiery temper and a tendency to become litigious when wronged. De Carrouges holds himself out as a loving husband, good friend, and the aggrieved party in a plot by Count Pierre and Jacque Le Gris to keep him from his birthright.
The second chapter’s devoted to squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a friend of Jean de Carrouges before they had a falling out over land, among other supposed offenses. Le Gris is a favorite of Count Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck), with the Count and the squire sharing a love of wine and women. The close relationship between Count Pierre and Jacques Le Gris helps drive a wedge between Le Gris and de Carrouges that no amount of diplomacy could mend. The line in the sand marking the complete dissolution of their friendship is drawn when Le Gris commits an atrocious, unforgivable act.
The female perspective of the last official duel is provided by Jean de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Marguerite’s tale appears to be the most trustworthy and it’s through her eyes we discover the true horror of what a judicially sanctioned duel actually involves.
Marguerite de Carrouges acted with unparalleled bravery and informed her husband that Le Gris had raped her while she was left alone and vulnerable. Unlike most women of that time, Marguerite refused to be silenced and was not swayed from her story despite the best efforts of the clergy, doctors, and members of court. Her account of the brutal attack is so gut-wrenching and realistically portrayed it should come with a trigger warning. (It’s important to be aware there are multiple scenes of sexual assault in The Last Duel, and they are disturbing and difficult to watch.)
Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Adam Driver deliver powerful performances but it’s Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer who absolutely drives this riveting epic tale. Ridley’s The Last Duel has plenty of exhilarating scenes of swordfights and battle sequences to keep the attention of action fans. But it’s in the quieter, character-driven moments centering around Comer as Marguerite that the film is at its most engaging. Comer is able to convey every ounce of pain, every heartbreak, and even the few scattered moments of joy in such a way that Marguerite earns our respect and empathy.
In The Last Duel’s testosterone-filled world of bloody battles and swordfights, it’s Comer’s Marguerite who emerges as the film’s fiercest warrior.
The decision to break up the film into three chapters told from differing points of view was inspired. Allowing the three central characters to speak their truths by watching the events from their individual standpoints makes for a much more complex and compelling viewing experience. I’d go as far to as to the story feels more participatory as we see the events unfold through the eyes of each key player and are able to judge their worth before the final horrific joust to the death plays out.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual assault, language, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and strong violence
Release Date: October 15, 2021
Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Studios