Directed by: Ridley Scott
Premise: Based on historical events. In fourteenth century France, a noble woman (Jodie Comer) is sexually assaulted by knight Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Her husband (Matt Damon) challenges Le Gris to a duel to the death.
What Works: Ridley Scott’s filmography includes an impressive subset of sword and shield films including Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. Those movies are some of Scott’s best work and they are distinguished by their fierce action and detailed production design. Those qualities are also found in The Last Duel. The film recreates medieval Europe with an unsparing sense of the difficulty and brutality of life at that time. That’s certainly true of the film’s violence but the grit and harshness is found in virtually every aspect of the story world from the cold castle chambers to the farmland. The Last Duel also adds details we haven’t regularly seen in these kinds of period pieces. A lot of stories about knights focus on ideals like honor and duty but The Last Duel takes an economic approach; the conflicts and relationships of this story are tied to money and politics. This emphasis gives The Last Duel a unique and contemporary edge. The film also has an impressive narrative structure. It essentially tells the story three times, with each iteration playing out from a different character’s perspective. But The Last Duel never gets repetitive because the filmmakers focus on the key moments of each version. As a result, The Last Duel possesses perspicuity while also containing lots of nuance in its characters and depth in its themes. The film also has several great performances. The film is led by Matt Damon and Jodie Comer as Jean and Marguerite de Carrouges and Adam Driver as Jacques Le Gris. The actors approach each iteration of the story with subtle adjustments to their performances and the filmmakers capitalize on those nuances. The film also includes impressive supporting performances by Harriet Walter as Nicole de Carrouges, the mother of Damon’s character, and Ben Affleck as Count Pierre d’Alençon. In very different ways, both Walter and Affleck give their scenes some unique color and their characters add to the sense of corruption.
What Doesn’t: As the premise may suggest, The Last Duel is at times difficult to watch. In telling its story from multiple vantage points, the film also revisits the sexual assault. It’s never exploitative but this is a brutal film. The one odd quality about The Last Duel is its accents. It’s not unusual for actors in French-set English-language dramas to use a British accent but the actors of The Last Duel speak with a mix of American and British inflections. The inconsistency is never enough to destroy the illusion but it is an odd choice.
Bottom Line: The Last Duel manages to be both gritty and thoughtful. It’s a brutal and at times unpleasant film but it’s also a gripping and complicated story with some great performances.
Episode: #877 (November 7, 2021)