Review: Thrilling Renaissance epic 'The Last Duel' fires on all cylinders
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
Oscar winner Ridley Scott makes his triumphant return to the era of swords, jousting, and knights in shining armor. Not since “Gladiator” has the director been this deep in the trenches with both exhilarating combat sequences and an engaging, complex narrative that slowly unravels over the course of 153-breathless minutes. On the surface, “The Last Duel,” which also has stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon hop back on the screenwriting train, could have slumped into a standard jousting epic with routine beats and action choreography, but Scott and company turn a based-on-a-true story thriller, set in 1300 France, into something more noteworthy. The climactic showdown lives up to the title.
Giving life to 14th century France, transporting audiences to an era of treasonous debauchery and lustful desires, “The Last Duel,” written by Damon, Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, is based on true events in Normandy 1370, where the country’s last sanction duel, a battle to the death on horseback, took place. Damon stars as knight Jean de Carrouges who requests the match after his wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer - outstanding) accuses squire Jacques LeGris (Adam Driver) of raping her. Almost a statement on the validity of believing victims in a time when shaming has become the norm, Scott gives Comer plenty to work with and she steals the show from the testosterone fueled madness.
Brilliantly split into three sections, “The Last Duel” rolls back the tape on the events which culminate in the final battle, presented in three different sections: “The truth according to Jean de Carrouges” followed by accounts from JacQues LeGris and Marguerite de Carrouges with the latter bringing the entire context of the film to its knees. This smart device the screenwriters have cooked-up allows audiences to see how characters view their own actions. Jean Carrouges fancy’s himself a loving husband, determined warrior, and purveyor of truth, but Marguerite has a skewed and honest revelation of her husband’s borderline abusive behavior. Likewise for Leagris who believes his actions were justifiable.
Comer is incredible as she is forced to hash out the details of her assault several times and Scott, the amazing storyteller he is, toys with audiences misconceptions to where, just like everyone before her, we’re left questioning the accusations. Marguerite’s sexual desires are laid out in a court of law, and close friends and confidants offer no sound advice. Her life is literally put in the hands of her husband where if he were to lose the duel, would be seen as guilty in the eyes of God and burned at the stake.
Offering one of the best performances of his career, Ben Affleck’s Count Pierre, a blonde-haired member of the King’s court who oversees military operations, property taxes and several women after hours, teters so closely to the edge of camp, the portrayal never misses a beat. Originally intended to play Driver’s character, Affleck stumbled into the smaller role after a scheduling conflict and it might just land him Oscar love. And while Driver and Damon get to chew up a fair amount of screentime and eventually duke it out, it always comes back to Comer who gets to drive the narrative and our interpretation of these men who are looking for any excuse to stab the other in the neck.
The film ricochets through several different moments in the 1300s, engulfing the viewer in a timeline which has a silly teenager (Alex Lawther) serving as King, and armies pillaging and destroying homes reluctant to pay their tax after the Count, due to his own financial shortcomings, unjustly hikes the rate. But Scott never detours from the path despite Driver making questionable and hammy acting choices which, alongside Damon, look stagey and presentational. When the dust (and blood) settles, “The Last Duel” doesn’t lose sight of what it’s fighting for and any worries the 83-year director has lost his touch can safely be thrown out to pasture.
THE LAST DUEL opens in theaters Friday, October 15th.