The Last Duel (2021) Review
I SAY BEFORE ALL OF YOU,
I SPOKE THE TRUTH!
Director Ridley Scott has taken viewers on various cinematic journeys throughout his career as a film director; depicting several key movie scene moments that have become both memorable and timeless in their own right, with a special affinity towards iconic in pop culture references. While 1977’s historical drama The Duelists was his directorial debut, Scott gained credibility with several other of his releases, including the sci-fi horror Alien in 1979, the sci-fi drama Blade Runner in 1982, the psychological horror Hannibal in 2001, the action war flick Black Hawk Down in 2001, the biographical crime drama American Gangster in 2007, the sci-fi drama The Martian in 2015, and several others. With The Duelists being his first directorial endeavor, one of Scott crowning achievement was Roman historical drama of Gladiator in 2000, which gained massive popularity with critics and moviegoers alike and won a multitude of awards. Scott’s attention historical drama pieces has been customary in his body of work; finding the director tracked to those particular period pieces productions and storytelling opportunities. Scott’s historical drama films include such films like the Age of Discovery in 1492: Conquest of Paradise in 1992, the Crusade medieval era Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, the medieval time period in Robin Hood in 2010, and the biblical world of Ancient Egypt in Exodus: Gods and Kings in 2015. Now, 20th Century Fox and director Ridley Scott return to the historical drama world of 13th Century France in the movie The Last Duel; based on the book of the same name by Eric Jager as well as being based on a true story. Does this latest costumed period piece film shine within Scott’s illustrious career or is it a bloated and formulaic movie that has little meaty on his bone?
Taking place in the 1300s, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a French knight trying to make his way in life. Though frustrated of find his place in society, the man himself is known for his violent ways, which has won battles for Count Pierre (Ben Affleck) and their majesty, King Charles VI (Alex Lawther). Aiding Jean is his squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who is trying to make sense of his master, with the pair riding / fighting together in battle, where they’ve formed a tentative friendship with each other. However, Count Pierre has caught the attention of Jacques, impressed his intelligence and libertine ways, with the squire rising in the ranks as he takes command of the kingdom’s future. By comparison, Jean is left with little to do, soon finding a love in the form of Marguerite (Jodi Comer), taking her as his wife, only to carry on with a limited dowry and no heir produced. However, when Jean learns of a sexual assault committed by Jacques, whose obsession with Marguerite suddenly switches to brutality, leaving the knight to accuse his once friend / squire of rape his wife, putting the two men on a collision course to face off in a duel to the death for entertainment and spectacle of France to behold. Yet, as the two men prepare to do battle, there is more at stake than both can realize, with Marguerite’s future hanging in the balance over the outcome of their impending duel.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Of the many famous directors that I like (i.e., Stephen Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan, etc.), Ridley Scott is definitely up there with those directors….at least in my opinion Scott has certainly have a talent for creating such vivid and compelling feature films that us (the viewers) on an incredible journey. While not every movie of his is a “massive hit”, his collective body of work speaks for itself, Scott’s directorial works has found success with critics and moviegoers alike, including several timeless classic that are prime candidates to be encased in cinematic tapestry of film history. Naturally, I’m talking about Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator as such prime examples, which, of course, I all love and definitely speak volumes in great storytelling as well as great feature film endeavors on Scott’s part. It’s something that personally “clicks” with the stars aligning the right way and that’s something that Scott’s movies most do. As mentioned in my opening paragraph, Scott almost has a special affinity attraction towards costumed period pieces (of which I am sucker for), with the director usually encapsulating a strong story / character-driven narrative that is set within a “another time”; utilizing the setting’s backdrop as primary player for plot and large-scale cinema moments. Of course, Gladiator is one that fits that description the best (one of my all-time favorites), with Scott utilizing the Ancient Roman world for such a gripping and rich story of revenge and honor. Looking beyond Gladiator, Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven is another great production, with the director producing a grandiose, cinematic look of the Crusades with epic scope and grandeur. While I have mixed thoughts on 2010’s Robin Hood and 2015’s Exodus: Gods & Kings, I still think that they are still good, costumed period pieces, with Scott playing around within two great time periods for each respective films and giving a solid production quality. In the end, while Scott will continue to produce a wide variety of theatrical films, his attraction to period piece dramas are something I look forward to seeing the most.
This, in turn, brings me back to talking about The Last Duel, a 2021 historical drama film endeavor and Scott’s latest movie project. After the release of 2017’s All the Money in the World, director Ridley Scott sort of went “quiet”; disappearing off the grid (if you will), with no new “buzz” for future projects on the horizon. As the years passed, I didn’t hear anything and was definitely curious what the director’s next project was going to be. It wasn’t until either the end of last year (2020) or the beginning of this year (2021) that details surround Scott’s next film, with not one, but two feature films being released in one year. While the second release film (i.e., House of Gucci) would be his biographical drama (released in November 2021), Scott’s The Last Duel was the first to be released and Scott’s more historical epic endeavor of the two. In truth, however, I didn’t pay much attention to it (sadly, but true) …. until I saw the film’s movie trailer, which blew me away. As I said, I am a sucker for period pieces and seeing this movie’s medieval-ish setting quickly drew me in as well as the acting talents involved (Affleck, Damon, Comer, and Driver) and the story of the last accountant duel in France’s history. I just forgot to post the movie trailer on my blog (sorry about that guys). Anyways, combining all that I liked about the preview itself, I was definitely looking forward to seeing The Last Duel in theaters when the film was scheduled to be released on October 15th, 2021. As a side note, this movie was originally to be released on December 25th, 2020, before going nationwide on January 8th, 2021. However, due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, The Last Duel was shifted to be released later in 2021. That being said, I did go see the movie on its opening night, but I had to completed two reviews for my blog before I got around to this particular one. So…. the big question…. what did I think of it? Well, I loved it. The Last Duel is a masterful and bold blockbuster historical epic that encompasses a very important subject matter within the guise of medieval chivalry and honor. It may be just out of reach of some Scott’s more iconic films, but only slightly….and that shouldn’t diminish the overall quality and cinematic entertainment value that this film has to offer in the ways of story, presentation, and performances.
Originally, The Last Duel was going to be directed by director Francis Lawrence, the director behind I Am Legend, Water for Elephants, and three out of four Hunger Games movies (Catching Fire and Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2), but the film’s rights lapsed, and Lawrence left the project; leaving Ridley Scott to direct the feature. Additionally, the project was somewhat in production limbo as the film was under the 20th Century Fox banner and, with the Disney merger, the state of The Last Duel was left undecided. Soon, however, the decision was made, and the project was a go. Thus, with Scott at the helm, the movie was going to be the director’s “return” to his more gritty and historical epic dramas that he had made during the 2000s era, with movies like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. On that front, Scott certainly does succeed; fronting loading the movie’s opening salvo sequences with the impending beginning duel between Jean and Jacques. It’s a great teased and showcases the grandeur and spectacle that is to come from when this particular scene will come during the movie as well as setting the film’s overall tone that is found within its time period setting. I’ll explain more on the setting later on, but the movie’s backdrop is wonderful within that unease feeling of gritty texture, which certainly does play into the film’s feeling of its action and violence. Battles are presented and are very visceral; showcasing the harsh environment of the battlefield in 13th Century European, with Scott focusing on the sheer brutality of it all. It never feels jarring or unnecessarily uber violent (as some comic book movies try to do), but the violent is for the mature style audience. Thus, those who know of Scott’s previous works, will appreciate the gritty action that is displayed in The Last Duel, while some fans squirm at the fierce combat taking place. It’s just a word of caution for the viewers out there. As for the main battle between the two men…. let me tell you…it doesn’t disappointment. Won’t spoil it, but it’s very well-executed, handled quite well, and very intense. It will keep you on the edge of your seat and (like me) will have your heart racing. Its within these moments where Scott’s direction shines immensely as the director himself is no stranger to staging / filming such sequences from his past projects, which is ever-present in how this particular climax fight in the movie is performed. It’s a testament to Scott’s work and the scene itself speaks for the director’s ability to heighten cinematic moments.
All that being said, while the action, gritty violence, and staging of the titular battle is quite important and exciting, The Last Duel excels the most in how the film is character study of the film’s main characters and how Scott (as a director) decided to present the main bulk of the movie’s story. With the film’s fundamental question of whether or not the accusation of Jacques raping Marguerite is true, Scott structures the film in a very unique way by splitting the movie up into the three chapters; each one giving a personal look at the character’s point view of how events played out. The first chapter through Jean’s view and the second is Jacques’s view, with the dual narratives showcasing the different of perception of how each man sees one another, while Marguerite’s take on the situation are the film’s third chapter that consists of her side and the main duel fight that plays out. What follows is something truly masterful and different, with each chapter showcasing something different from a main person’s point of view as well as offering up more of a backstory for each respective character. There is a repetitive nature to this form of storytelling, with some of the scenes playing twice or even three times throughout the course of the movie, but each iteration provides something new; a slight variation from the previous one. This intricate nature of storytelling definitely works and is handled quite well, with Scott doing a great job in staging on these sequences are presented in each chapter and how it all comes together as the movie’s plot progresses forward. It also in these moments where the movie’s characters shine (more on that below), but in the way of storyline threads; finding one incident to be honest and truthful Jean’s version and then being deceitful and petty in Jacques’s version, while Marguerite’s version is variation of the two. It’s great way of presenting a person’s perception of a situation and how the truth itself can be obscured from one person to another …..whether in grandiose ways or even subtle change of dialogue / glances. All of these is great handled within Scott’s directorial hands, which makes The Last Duel quite an engaging and engrossing film from start to finish.
Of course, with main central plot being focused on the raping of a woman, The Last Duel’s social commentary is just as important and prevalent than the gritty violence and storytelling structure…if not more important. As I’ve mentioned in several of my movie reviews within the past several years, Hollywood has recently become more aware of female empowerment; showcasing / examining women in both fictional and non-fictional narrations in a better light and / or showing the hardships that they face in the challenges against men and society. While I am a champion of this idea, there is right and a wrong way to showcases feminism / female empowerment in the movies; finding some projects to be insightful and impactful, while others are too preachy (on the nose…sort of speak) and feel shoehorned in. Fortunately, The Last Duel is the former and not the latter of the two, with the film presenting the plight of Marguerite’s involvement in the story ever presence and how she is perceived through the two men’s eyes. Scott doesn’t go full throttle of “shock and awe” like David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but the scene question in The Last Duel (the truth) is still horrifying, unnerving, and uncomfortable to watch….as such an act of violence should be. Thus, a cautionary warning to those out there as Scott doesn’t shy away from such a violent sexual act being committed. In addition, Marguerite’s search for justice to be done is buried underneath the two men’s ambitions, with Jean (her husband) challenging the duel for his name and honor, while Jacques accepting the challenge to keep his privileged lifestyle and image intact. Thus, the two men are great examples of toxic masculinity, which is masked as dutiful honor and chivalry, but it is Marguerite herself that feels the brunt of this, with the outcome of the duel determining her fate. Again, this is main crux of what The Last Duel ultimately boils down to; stripping away the epic fights, and gritty presentation and we (as the viewer) are left with a story about two men to determine the veracity of a woman’s rape accusation. Harsh and stark remainder of the struggle that women had during this particular time period and a more self-aware / somber reflection that some women out there still face this even in today’s world. As Jean’s mother (Nicole de Buchard) says to Marguerite in one scene “There is no right. There is only the power of men”. Thus, The Last Duel feels appropriate for making Marguerite such a powerful figure in the movie, especially in the latter half, as well as in being a justifiable in the movie’s social commentary message of a woman’s position, toxic masculinity, the subject of rape. Some might critizie the film for being the “Medieval #Metoo” feature, but I think the depth of the story, its characters, and how it’s all presented outweigh those criticisms.
It’s because of this that the movie is great in displaying such a harsh existence of women and unwilling, ugly of men, with Scott displaying this exceptional on-screen. Plus, the movie’s story is that more richer and shocking that such a narrative is based on a true story, which is depicted in Eric Jager’s book of the same name. In addition, the film’s script, which was penned by Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck, is solid across the board, with the story being focused on the main threads of Jean, Jacques, and Marguerite perception of a sequences of event and how everything starts to come together as the pieces of truth are revealed. Also, the actually written dialogue for the film various characters is great and gives the various acting talents plenty of substance and meaty lines to present. As a sidenote, as I didn’t have any other place to put this, Scott’s attention to keeping the camera lens focused on the feature’s three main characters (Jean, Jacques, and Marguerite) is one of paramount importance and does so throughout the movie. Meaning….. that neither the direction of the film nor the script handling deviates into side-stories or goes off on a superfluous tangent of various secondary characters and / or the world building in the film’s setting. It’s always about the three main characters and I think that decision is one that keep the feature focused on the main objective of its narrative, which makes for a tighter / impactful feature endeavor.
In the presentation category, The Last Duel is fantastic and wholeheartedly joins the solid presentations that are usually accustomed to Scott’s directorial works. Like a lot of Scott’s period piece endeavors, there is a sense of texture and realism that is felt throughout almost every scene, which The Last Duel does exceptionally well. Rather than a standard / traditional, Medieval-esque setting (one that immediately comes to mind), Scott envisions a more weary and older time setting of 13th Century France. Yes, it has that Medieval feeling of visual aesthetics (as well as grandiosity of gothic-like architecture / motifs), but the film’s color palette is muted with grey-ish coloring and faded hues of that color’s variations, which gives off a more dreary appearance and hopefulness within the film’s setting. Plus, the costumes all look great, with plenty of believable textures and sewing work for that era. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” important players, including Arthur Max (production design), Judy Farr (set decorations), Janty Yates (costume designs), and the entire art direction team for their efforts in making The Last Duel’s background setting so rich and believable. Plus, the feature’s cinematography work by Dariusz Wolski, who has collaborated with Scott before on Prometheus, The Martian, and Exodus: Gods and Kings, is particularly great throughout the entire film; displaying some great cinematic moments that help bring the movie’s story in a creative and unique way, especially during some of the action sequences. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, is terrific and delivers some great quality of music, which is combination of both dramatic moods melodies and gothic / medieval-esque compositions; something befitting the film’s time setting period.
While there is a lot of positives that highlight in the movie, The Last Duel does hit a few snags in how the feature is executed, which causes the film to face a few minor points of criticism from me. Perhaps the best one is in the film’s bloated runtime and how long everything plays out from opening scene to final credits. With the movie having a runtime of 152 minutes (two hours and thirty-two minutes), The Last Duel is quite long, and it does feel like that. This is made that much more apparent as the feature itself is to be considered a “slow burner”; slowing present the various storyline threads of Jean, Jacques, and Marguerite as what is true and what is false begins to materialize. Yes, the movie does have a few moments of action, which helps break up the slower portions of the story, but the movie has a more methodical approach; edging slowly to the film’s climatic duel. Thus, those expecting the film to have a more “fast and furious (not the film franchise, but a more of faster approach) will be disappointed. In addition, with the film’s story structured into three different chapters that offer up three points of views, there is a repetitive nature throughout. Thus, the idea, while I love, can be a bit clunky at times, especially when us (the viewers) have to watch one scene play out once or twice more in the film. Again, I understand the intention of this and how each sequential rewind of the scene offers some slight variation, but…. you know what I time. There’s just a sense of DeJa’Vu feeling. As a minor sidenote, The Last Duel’s gritty action and violence, while good and I like, does show a lot of graphic displays of animal violence (not animal cruelty) and, while I know that helps build up the overall grittiness to the proceedings, I did get a few uneasy pit in my stomach in one or two moments. All this being said, most of these are minor complaints and points of criticism, don’t distract from how my like and appreciate the film’s presentation, story, and integrity of its characters.
Speaking of characters, the cast of The Last Duel is solid across the board and definitely one of the best highlights that the film has to offer; finding the acting talents involved on this project bringing their respective thespian “A” game, despite whether or not the actor / actress is a main character or a secondary one. Headlining the movie as the two men, who are at odds with each other throughout majority of the film, are actors Matt Damon and Adam Driver, as Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris. As I mentioned, the chapter narration offer up different perspectives of how one character perceives their interaction with the other, with Jean and Jacques’s chapters showcasing to vastly different portrayals of their each other in a different light. Again, truth and lie are ambiguous as virtues are called into question between Jean and Jacques and how each man flaws become increasingly visible as the movie’s narrative proceeds forward. Damon, who is known for her roles in Good Will Hunting, The Martian, and The Departed, is solid as Jean, a man who is first portrayed as a man of honor and a dutiful husband, but becomes more petty and seeks / demands respect. Likewise, Driver, who is known for his roles in the sequel Star Wars trilogy (The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker) as well as Paterson, and Marriage Story, is great as Jacques, a man who is giving power and position, but squanders opportunity through his actions and own personal vanity. Both Damon and Driver have proven to be capable actors in lead roles, with Driver showcasing a better acting talent that he did as Kylo Ren in Star Wars. The deviant nature of men and the power that wield is on full display between the two characters and both Damon and Driver excel in presenting those toxic masculinity ambitions and arrogant bravado to the letter, which is translated quite well in Jean’s temper of frustration and Jacques’s callous lifestyle.
All that being said, who actual shines the best (and brightest) in the entire movie is actress Jodie Comer, who plays the character of Marguerite de Carrouges, Jean’s wife and the central figure in the question of challenging of the duel between Jean and Jacques. Known for her roles in Killing Eve, The White Princess, and Free Guy, Comer has made a name for herself in the recent years; slowly becoming a more recognizable name and appearing more frequently in mainstream productions. This is a great thing for her (as an actress) and she definitely gets the chance to shine in The Last Duel, with a such a rich character to play. At first glance (basically the first half), the character of Marguerite is more of a secondary character, but becomes increasingly more important in her own right as the film shifts towards the latter half, which again gives her side of the story of what is transpiring between both Jean and Jacques. Comer is truly the standout performance in the role by showcasing a rolodex range of emotions that Marguerite has from dutiful wife to accused harlot to weary rape victim. Plus, she definitely holds her own in every scene that she shares with Damon and Driver, which is a testament to her acting / screen presence, while giving a sense of profound realism to Marguerite’s plight and proceeds to follow. As I mentioned before, the question over such an accusation of rape looms large throughout the movie and Comer handles herself well in tackling such a tragic sexual act of violence with a life-like performance and what follows, even though society of 13th Century France almost makes a spectacle of her trial. Many of her more emotional scenes are gut-wrenching and are truly hauntingly beautiful to behold, especially when she confronts she delivers her accounts of what happened to the public; finding Comer’s acting pitch-perfect and raw in those moments. In the end, I think that Comer did an amazing job as Marguerite, and I wouldn’t be surprised (and certainly hope) that she gets nominated for her role in this movie during the upcoming award season. She definitely deserves it!
Looking beyond the three main players in The Last Duel, actor Ben Affleck gets best supporting character role in his portrayal of Count Pierre, a privileged noblemen who holds power and liege lord to both Jean and Jacques. Affleck, known for his roles in The Town, Argo, and Gone Girl, has certainly made a name for his himself in his career, with a few troublesome worries a few years back. That being said, he still managed to be a great actor and (of course) that shows in his performance in this particular movie. However, of the main “big ticketed” stars of The Last Duel, Affleck is perhaps the weakest. That’s not saying that he gives a bad performance or anything like that, but, just compared to Damon, Driver, and Comer, his character just doesn’t have that juiciness of meaty substance of drama. Still, it’s quite clear that Affleck is having fun with such a character like Count Pierre, a princely lord who spends his days indulging himself with wine, women, and song and he certainly plays that part quite well; offering comedic levity on occasion in an otherwise gravitas feature film. Thus, for better or worse, Affleck’s Pierre is an amusing supporting character in the movie and does offer some fun with the actor’s presence and acting nuances. As a sidenote, the same can be said slightly said for actor Alex Lawther (Goodbye, Christopher Robin and Howard’s End) as King Charles VI, who plays the royal monarchy with a sense of youthful angst and a tad of comedic immaturity rather than a regal ruler. Like Affleck, it’s fine and does provide a levity to this otherwise very serious historical drama.
The rest of the cast, including actress Harriet Walter (The Crown and Black Sails) as Jean’s mother Nicole de Buchard, actor Marton Csokas (XxX and Kingdom of Heaven) as Crespin, actor Oliver Cotton (Firefox and Sensitive Skin) as Jean’s father Jean de Carrouges III, actor Nathaniel Parker (The Vineyard and Of Kings and Prophets) as Marguerite’s father Sir Robert de Thibouville, actor Sam Hazeldine (Peaky Blinders and The War Below) as Thomin du Bois, actor Zeijko Ivanek (Argo and John Adams) as Le Coq, actor Michael McElhatton (Game of Thrones and The Alienist) as Bernard Latour, and actress Tallulah Haddon (The Living and the Dead and Taboo) as Bernard’s wife / Marguerite’s friend Marie, round the rest of the supporting players in the movie. With much of the film’s runtime being devoted to the main principle cast, these characters don’t have a whole lot of development, which is fine. That being said, most (if not all) give solid performances in their supporting roles and lend their credibility to their respective characters throughout the feature’s narrative.
A true story of the last recorded account of the last duel in France’s history (and all the complexities) that lead up to that point are cinematically presented in the movie The Last Duel. Director Ridley Scott’s latest film takes trip back to the Medieval 13th Century for costumed period piece that is rooted in complexity and character ambiguity; wrapped in the guise of chivalry and honor. It’s a very human story that is masterfully displayed in a cinematic story that only someone like Scott could achieve and pull off in both entertainment value and gut-wrenching dramatics. While the film’s bloated runtime can be problematic by overextending its duration as well as in its pacing and repetitive nature of retreading narrative beats, the movie itself exceptional and bold, thanks to Scott’s direction, a unique storytelling presentation structure, a visual quality in the feature’s presentation, a profound social commentary message, complex characters, and a stellar cast. Personally, I loved this movie. The story was gripping and engrossing from beginning to end, the cast was great, and the film’s presentation was fantastic. I enjoyed every minute as it felt like Ridley Scott’s work of old. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a highly favorable “highly recommended” as it is a great theatrical feature film that has plenty to offer in ways and means of complexed storytelling and multi-faceted characters. I think that the movie is something that everyone should see, even though it may not be for the faint of heart…. the reward of exploring such a cinematic tale is worth it, especially because of its subject matter and the performances that are presented. With this particular movie being Scott’s first film release of 2021, it will be interesting to see how House of Gucci, his second movie of the year, will be received and measure up against this feature. In the end, The Last Duel is a fantastic epic and historical drama motion picture that places a heavy focus on perception and character motivations; blurring the lines of truths and lies, unmasking evil for what it is, and eerily displaying that some things, despite the feature’s time period setting, haven’t changed in hundreds of years.
4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: October 15th, 2021
Reviewed On: October 20th, 2021
The Last Duel is 152 minutes long and is rated R for strong violence, including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language