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‘The Last Duel’ works medieval wonders in spite of shortcomings

‘The Last Duel’ works medieval wonders in spite of shortcomings

‘The Last Duel’ works medieval wonders in spite of shortcomings
October 22
12:00 2021

“The truth does not matter. There is only the power of men.”

For “The Last Duel,” director Ridley Scott of “Gladiator” and “Blade Runner” fame has returned to familiar soil: a historical epic set in fourteenth-century France, based on the book of the same name. Whilst her husband, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), is off fighting for the king, noblewoman Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses estranged friend and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of sexually assaulting her. At trial, all three, Jean, Jacques and Marguerite give their own testimonies of what they believe happened, leading to the final state-sanctioned duel in French history. 

Written by Damon, co-star Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, “The Last Duel” is a look into men and women in an abusive, patriarchal system and how each one thrives and flounders in it. Despite some uneven handedness in the writing, director Scott and crew turn in an engaging result. 

To his credit, “The Last Duel” is very much a stylistic return-to-form for director Scott, who brings his A-game when it comes to the visuals, storytelling and sheer scale. Despite a muted color palette, “The Last Duel” is one pretty movie, with Scott and usual cinematographer Dariusz Wolski reveling in immaculate period detail and lush landscapes to create gorgeous panoramas of medieval France. 

The performers are both inspired and uneven, albeit in an oddly inspired way. All three perspective characters are well-acted and given a lot to do, even between all four chapters of the main story. Comer carries herself with such a precise, uncertain dignity — very much born of noble blood but navigating a hostile and abusive system with dignified unease. Both Damon and Driver also do a great job carving three-dimensional characters out of every chapter, though both have thoroughly inconsistent accents and affectations coming and going with the consistency of wet toilet paper. The fourth central character, Count Pierre, is such an entertaining and fascinatingly douchey character in his own right, he not only steals the show but ends up helping it work as an odd black comedy.

On a writing level, “The Last Duel” is messy. The aim is to examine and critique the culture these characters exist in, and is very much a transparent allegory for the #MeToo movement. The first chapter is more a traditional tale of honor and respect, while the second tears the first one down and is kind of a sleazy bro-comedy while the third is very much a serious, no-holds-barred look at what it means to be at the mercy of the system. Each reveals different layers to all the major players, with Jean’s heroic nature in his own story being framed as more of a haughty oaf in Le Gris’s segment. Both men are absolutely skewered in Marguerite’s chapter, but rarely is anyone two-dimensional. Even Count Pierre, portrayed by Affleck with such frat boyish enthusiasm, adds to the story as someone who commands such high power while hardly maintaining any respectable front for it. 

However, the story somewhat kneecaps itself on the ambiguity. Marguerite’s story is presented as the truth in a very blunt way. Referring again to the #MeToo movement, it kind of takes the idea of “Believe Women” without really examining what it means. Yes, the writers do a good job establishing and substantiating Marguerite’s case, but also blatantly throw aside the previous ambiguity. Marguerite herself kind of feels like a footnote in the climax, aside from a seemingly tacked-on final scene. In an odd way, her agency in the story becomes minimized and not necessarily in a way that feels intended on the part of the storytellers, while simultaneously mooting the impact of the other chapters just a bit. 

The eponymous duel itself is an uneven spectacle, high on suspense and visceral violence but lacking at the bare foundations of a good action sequence. It’s a fitting finale, encapsulating the high and low points of the story. The editing is choppy in the hand-to-hand fight and the camera shaky, but it works for what Scott and co. aim for. 

Even at its weakest, “The Last Duel” is a well-executed medieval drama with plenty of aspects to engage. While its themes are muddled in the execution, the performances and direction do much to give them life beyond their faults. While director Scott and co. may not entirely accomplish their goals, they nevertheless thoroughly entertain.  

Will’s final rating: 3.75/5

Source 20th Century Studios 

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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