The Last Duel Synopsis: Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a respected knight known for his bravery and skill on the battlefield. Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) is a squire whose intelligence and eloquence make him one of the most admired nobles in the court. When Le Gris viciously assaults Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), she steps forward to accuse her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy. The ensuing trial by combat, a grueling duel to the death, places the fate of all three in God’s hands.
At 83 years young, Ridley Scott’s distinct oeuvre of grandiose, old-fashioned epics continues with The Last Duel. Scott will forever be a mainstay in blockbuster filmmaking, but his recent ancient adventures have struggled to recapture the success of his Best Picture-winning hit Gladiator. Both Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings presented the same immersive scale without developing a substantive core to invest in.
With Last Duel, Scott and screenwriters Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener utilize the harsh medieval backdrop as a meaningful way to address the culture of abuse behind the modern #MeToo Movement. While a timely concept, The Last Duel’s disjointed and simplistic execution renders into a laborsome detour into the era’s problematic culture.
Whether it’s a hit or a miss, Ridley Scott’s trademark sensibilities are always a welcomed sight. The craftsman – alongside Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski – skillfully inhabits the dreary dredges of 1300 France. From the rustically assembled fiefdoms to the blood-soaked battlefields, the duo’s withdrawn color scheme and steady framing choices set a fittingly dreary atmosphere defined by underlying injustices. When the action takes place, it sledgehammers viewers with a blunt beatdown of brutality to further cement the setting’s dog-eat-dog reality. It’s also just a delight to see a tandem indulge in the scale of medieval epics again – with the subgenre vanishing over the years in the favoring of eye-popping actioners.
Performance-wise, The Last Duel showcases a star-studded ensemble. Matt Damon imbues Jean’s fragile ego and unhinged rage with dramatic grace, while Adam Driver personifies Jacques’ twisted perspective through his mannered techniques. The standout of the bunch is easily Jodie Comer – who continues her recent breakout as Jean’s wronged wife, Marguerite. In a world dominated by male hubris and sexist practices, Comer radiates with poignant strength and emotional vulnerability as a woman trying to maneuver a damaging hierarchy. Ben Affleck also offers some surprising levity as a power-drunk cousin of the throne.
The Last Duel’s premise approaches a tricky line between exploitation and dramatic potency. While a three-writer approach is a noble way to convey the story’s varied perspectives, the script eventually becomes the film’s fatal flaw. A three-act structure attempts to analyze the perspectives behind each of the central players – with Damon and Affleck collaborating on Jean and Jacques’s perspectives while Holofcener constructed Marguerite’s arc. In execution, the conceptual design reduces the concept’s fruitful insights into didactic handholding.
Most viewers can spotlight the ways that 1300 France resembles our own broken culture, often praising male hubris and recklessness while admonishing the unfortunate souls left in the wreckage of their actions. Despite a few intriguing thematic wrinkles – particularly Jean’s war-driven lust for honor as he continually underserves Marguerite’s perspective – the three-act structure only spells out the obvious. Several scenes are redundantly re-done throughout the movie to introduce minor changes, with this choice tactlessly shouting at the audience with every minor development.
The constant spoon-feeding creates a laborsome, 152-minute experience to endure – reducing the meaningful textures of this period into rah-rah posturing. History has already given enough credence to Jean and Jacques, so why spend a majority of the first two hours running through the gamut of the duo’s warped perspective? Ironically enough, The Last Duel ultimately marginalizes Marguerite’s viewpoint the same way her pig-headed contemporaries did.
The Last Duel certainly possesses the bones of an assured epic. I would love to see what a skilled editor could pull from gluing its wonky structure together (it wouldn’t be the first time that happened to a Ridley Scott film). As it stands now, Duel serves as a misguided medieval epic that plods along without having much to say.
The Last Duel is now playing in theaters nationwide.
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