After four years of silence, the iconic and insanely prolific Sir Ridley Scott has finally returned in the year of our lord 2021 with not one but two films, both historical films based on real events featuring Adam Driver: The Last Duel and House of Gucci. Of course if anyone is at all familiar with Scott’s career one will know there is a direct connection between The Last Duel and his very first feature film, The Duellists from 1977 with Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine. Both are set in a historical time period in France, both are concerned with the rituals of duels and are interested in what said ritual exposes about masculinity and concepts of honor and duty and their ultimate triviality. But whereas The Duellists was a very modestly budgeted lean-and-mean ninety minute affair, The Last Duel sees Ridley going full David Lean on us with a running time of 152 minutes and multiple castles and great attention being paid to period detail and accuracy. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s interesting how the two films can be so similair yet so different at the same time.
The Last Duel tells the true story of a duel carried out in France in 1386 between knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) after the latter is accused of raping Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). How much truth there is to the story the way it’s told I don’t know, but given this is a historical film by Ridley Scott I wouldn’t be surprised if a considerable amount of liberty was taken, though I doubt they’d take too many drastic liberties and most likely keep the broad strokes of truth in the story intact.
So as you already know by now, I quite enjoyed The Last Duel. I say this to something of my own amazement as Ridley Scott has always been a bit of a hit-and-miss filmmaker for me, especially as of late and when it comes to his medieval films, so you can imagine my trepidation of late career Ridley Scott going into a genre he’s failed at twice already in his career. And whilst The Last Duel shares some complaints I have from his previous depictions of this era (the color template being so gray it’s sometimes hard to see things and just make things very unappealing to look at) compared to snore fests like Kingdom of Heaven (the theatrical cut) and Robin Hood, The Last Duel offers enough fresh perspective on the era that makes me look past those certain issues, and the biggest thing it offers to the table is it structure and perspective, so let’s start with the structure.
The structure was interesting as it’s essentially a three-hander by way of Rashomon where we see many of the same events multiple times but each time through a different perspective, and each one affected by their subjective experience or belief set. We start with Matt Damon, then we rewind to see the same events through the perspective of Adam Driver and finally focus on Jodie Comer. This I found to be quite a refreshing thing to see in a Ridley Scott film, as his films tend to be fairly linear in their narratives, so to see the film be told in chapters just like a Quentin Tarantino film was very surprising but a welcomed one. I will say though at first it felt like it would be a chore to sit through, especially as we more or less go back to the exact spot we started in, but quickly my fears were crushed when I realized what was happening and what the filmmakers were doing. It probably also helps that Adam Driver and Jodie Comer, besides being great actors, definitely look like they come from medieval Europe and are fun to watch on screen, unlike Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who don two of the worst hairpieces I have ever seen in a major release and are less fun (at least in this film). People who used to complain that Colin Farrell’s blonde hair in Alexander didn’t look convincing should issue the man and makeup department an apology as these are clearly much worse and distracting in their awfulness. I’ve also seen people compare Affleck’s performance to Robert Pattinson’s in The King, but I can assure you Affleck has nothing on the supreme campery of Pattinson’s hilarious buffoonery in an otherwise awful film.
There is also the idea of perspective the film draws significant attention to. The film begins by showing us the male perspective as the men are the ones in charge and control as they have been throughout history, but as we draw towards the conclusion we finally see the same events through Jodie Comer’s perspective and it’s here were the film really steps up its game and establishes itself as belonging firmly in the “great Ridley Scott” camp for me. Comer’s character is virtually voiceless and we see rituals such as marriage, which is often associated with love and affection, be carried out like a business deal, of course with Comer having next to no say in the matter of whom she’s married to. And she becomes viewed by everyone, including her husband, as mere property instead of a being of flesh and blood. So after the horrific act of rape has been committed, it becomes clear quickly that whatever is done to resolve any of it is in service of Matt Damon’s character, as he’s seen as the wronged one rather than Comer. One character even makes it clear that rape is seen more as a crime against the husband as opposed to the woman, which goes to show how little society has changed in the centuries since this real incident has occured. We’re only now starting to reevaluate our positions on sexual violence and women’s role in society, and that is just desperately sad. And I appreciate the way Ridley handled those matters in the film, very delicately and carefully as one would need to with such a sensitive topic as rape.
One more thing I’d like to add is, on a slightly less serious note, I do love how Ridley hasn’t softened in his autumn years and still goes a considerable way to depict these medieval battles and conflicts as brutally violent as they most likely were. Not only is it more realistic but it’s just so refreshing to see a big, mainstream Hollywood film tackle as much explicit violence as this film does. We’re so used to basically every Hollywood movie these days be the tamest things ever it really makes one miss the bloody glory of filmmakers like Ridley, Paul Verhoeven and Sam Peckinpah. But the violence does actually serve a purpose, as it helps add tension to the film and particularly the climax. Having no prior knowledge of the real story I had no idea how the film would end, and that made the titular duel so much more exciting and tense to watch. There even were moments that made me jump a little in my seat because of the sheer physicality of it. Ridley doesn’t hold back on the graphic violence and that needs to be celebrated in today’s tame and lame teen-oriented Hollywood market.
So in conclusion, yes there are moments when the film drags and Damon and Affleck are less interesting than Driver and Comer. The accents done by the actors are also weird as they’re neither English nor French, which becomes a distraction. But for the most, The Last Duel is a homerun for Sir Ridley, almost making me more optimistic for House of Gucci later this year. It’s a long film but it remains exciting, dramatic and surprising throughout making it worth the price of admission.