The Last Duel is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
When it was announced that Ridley Scott would be directing a medieval showdown between friends-turned-foes, it sounded good. When it was revealed Ben Affleck & Matt Damon not only would star in it but also wrote the script themselves, it sounded great. Then with Jodie Comer on board, it sounded like a runaway success. Unfortunately, there is certainly a tragedy in The Last Duel, but likely not in the way Scott, Damon and Affleck were intending.
When the distractingly styled Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) discovers his once-friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) is accused of raping his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), he orders a duel to the death – the final legal duel in France, as it were. This sounds like a simple premise, and yet the way it’s told is unnecessarily convoluted and more bloated than a hanged man after 3 days in the village square. Many films are often saved in the edit – this one is hung, drawn and quartered. Scott elects to tell the story not as a cohesive whole but through chaptered retellings, devoting each chapter to a different perspective; Jean, Jacques, and finally Marguerite. Jean’s chapter is discordant, jumping from one moment to the next, at times feeling like we’ve missed a scene or two. We’re in 1381 Paris one moment, 1386 Scotland the next – there’s little cohesion to Jean’s story, as though the scenes were merely placed on the editing workbench, fiddled with slightly and left to render.
Jacques’ chapter is somewhat better, in part because Jean’s chapter seems to have been an entire set-up for it – however, Scott decides to re-tread scenes already reviewed in Jean’s chapter nearly verbatim. It feels like dull, worn padding that only serves to create this ‘epic’ runtime. Jean and Jacques are supposedly old friends-turned-foes, and yet we barely see their relationship at all. It’s shoddily constructed within the opening minutes, a key scene being intentionally unclear as to what the truth of the matter is. Within 15 minutes, they can’t stand each other. How are we meant to believe in their history when you don’t show more than a damn second of it?
At the very least, Driver’s Machiavellian persona is far more engaging than Matt Damon LARPing on a multi-million dollar set. Driver’s best moments are often with Affleck’s delightful Count Pierre, partially because Affleck fully understands the assignment. His peroxide blonde boy-band-like hair and goatee are the stylistics of a foolish libertine, and that’s exactly what Pierre is. A hedonistic, bratty man-child, like a Tyrion Lannister with far too much self-esteem, Affleck is genuinely one of the greatest players in this medieval drama because he’s a prick – but he feels like a real prick.
Watching Jacques’ perspective of the assault is when this retelling device fully falls apart – Jacques’ actions, even from his own perspective, are still rape. Sure, Comer isn’t screaming and crying at the top of her lungs – Scott saved that for last – but it’s still clearly unwanted. What’s the point of installing these multiple narrators if their stories ultimately seem the same? It’s only Marguerite’s that strays from the others, with the aggressively on-the-nose signposting of ‘the truth’ being the last words to fade from her chapter intertitle.
For a brief moment, Jodie Comer is given her fully-deserved lead. In another life, we would’ve been bestowed with a Comer-lead medieval drama centred around this captivating independence she operates about the castle and the grounds, but it’s sadly fleeting her. Comer once again outshines the rest of her cast, something that’s become a given as she’s cemented herself as one of the best actors of the last decade. Unfortunately, 30 minutes of actual characterization and independence does little to upend the two hours of objectification and brutalization Marguerite is forced to endure. One can’t help but feel there are the makings of a truly great adaptation, following Marguerite’s singular perspective of having to endure both the simple brute that is Jean and the Machiavellian villain of Jacques. Instead, it’s boys throwing their big swords around and proclaiming theirs is the biggest.
It’s a Ridley Scott film, so of course, the action is spectacular – soldiers’ arteries open like sprinklers on the battlefield, the sound of a thousand pieces of armour shattering and shaking against the violent collisions. When the last duel finally occurs, it is admittedly an unashamedly raw and rough brawl in the mud with an assortment of weapons drawn out for as long as possible. However, I found myself with little care for who comes out on top. Either way, Marguerite loses – if Jean wins, his pride and ego is validated, and his property is assured. If Jacques wins, it’s just another day in Medieval times.
This feels like one of the best films of 2003 – the problem is, it’s 2021. With The Last Duel being plagued by a lethargic runtime, with a simultaneously bloated-yet-undercooked edit to blame alongside some severe lack of actual relationship development between its key players, it simply doesn’t live up to the promises it makes.