Honour is a dangerous thing. It’s not inherently masculine, though it’s most formidable when bickered upon between men. In matters of honour, we become reckless; no one wants to appear lesser than anyone else, and when this sensation links to issues of desire, the laws of logic and reason by which we rule ourselves often fade. Of course, this is not a blanket occurrence, some men don’t see the need to be so foolhardy, but the men of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel most certainly do. And even though these men have the direst of reasons to fight for honour, they come to encompass how doing so can make us so weak.
Inspiring Scott’s latest are true events which transpired in the 1300s between Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) and his old friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Once told, it’s a gruesome tale, and to get the full scope, we go through three chapters. First is from the perspective of Carrouges, second from Le Gris and third from Marguerite. Each treads familiar ground, uncovering layers and providing conflicting accounts of the horrific event at the core. Said event being the heinous rape of Marguerite at the hands of Le Gris, over which the men fight the titular duel. However, the storytelling goes far beyond this. It begins with the two men as comrade squires riding to battle and continues long into the formation of grievances between them, all as Carrouges meets and marries Marguerite, eventually leaving her vulnerable to the womanising Le Gris.
The strongest of the three retellings is by far Marguerite’s, but there’s a wonderful nuance that comes across solely in the first two. Despite beginning friends, the pair are quickly at odds when Pierre d’Alençon (A hilarious Ben Affleck) gifts land to Le Gris that was to have gone to Carrouges as a part of Margurite’s dowry. Everything up to this point is relatively inconsequential, yet Scott still ensures he tells most of it in both chapters. In doing so, he uncovers the small things men like this lie about solely for the sake of honour, like who saved who amid bloody and reckless battle. Further in this point only grows until it becomes apparent within these two acts that both men are wholly ruled by their self-image, leaving quite a haunting sensation at the realisation that the small lies grew so dangerously. And when rumours spread of the accusations against Le Gris, the toxicity which they impose upon themselves leads them to a battle to the death.
Yet, Marguerite remains only a tool for the two men to hate each other because the structure leaves her without a voice two-thirds of the way in. Instead, we see Carrouges’ account which depicts him being far kinder and noble to his wife than she recalls, and Le Gris’ retelling has a partial and very disturbing insinuation that she wanted what he did to her. All this changes in the third act. Here what was beginning to feel like an incomplete film becomes whole as Marguerite opens the doors for us to get to the truth. And as she does, Jodie Comer delivers one of the finest performances of the year, one where you can’t pinpoint the specific moment in which it becomes great; it simply does. Through her telling of events, we see how the hubris of the men before her ruined our mosaic with falsehoods. Most impactful of all, the trial and duel are only included in her part, and it shows how, despite initially wanting to fight for justice, Carrouges begins to use her as a pawn for his own battle, that formidable battle to protect his honour.
All in all, The Last Duel is a remarkable outing from a veteran director who approaches a genre he knows well with a wholly new lens forged in the modern-day. When doing such a thing, it could be easy to try and force old with new, but Scott rises above this and produces work that cuts deep into the weaknesses of men and marks eerie parallels to the world today.
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