There are very few directors whose name alone is a drawcard for the masses, but Ridley Scott is one who can be considered among that company. Most recently, Scott’s touch has been applied to this medieval-set picture, drawing upon his wealth of experience to form a reasonably engrossing, if imperfect movie.
In 14th Century France, a squire and solider of the King is accused of sexual assault by a noblewoman, an act he empathically denies. The lady’s husband, a knight, supports her claims and demands justice, challenging the accused to a trial by combat – a duel to the death. Should the knight win, his wife’s accusations shall be seen as true to the eyes of God and her honour restored; should the squire win, he shall be deemed innocent, and his accuser punished for dishonesty.
Although the premise of The Last Duel (2021) is straightforward, its narrative structure wishes to be anything but, being non-linear in manner and split into three chapters, each focused on a different character. The first chapter’s subject is Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), the accuser’s husband; the second Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), the alleged perpetrator and estranged friend of Sir Jean; and the third Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), the alleged victim.
In each of these three parts, the story is told from the perspective of the subject and what they deem to be “The Truth”. It’s a noble and rather interesting approach, yet one that’s ultimately pointless, since the film is more or less convinced that Lady Marguerite’s account is absolute fact; thus, the perspectives of the other two men are rendered null and void, an unnecessary distraction from the main conflict. Had it dispensed of its all-sides-considered angle, and instead stuck with a singular, cohesive plot, The Last Duel would be just as compelling, if not more so.
Adding to woes, the picture devotes an inordinate amount of time to establishing the relationship between Jacques and Sir Jean, which does little to advance the plot – watching these chivalrous exchanges, viewers get the sense that Lady Marguerite’s assault is an event of secondary importance to the narrative, despite it being billed as the main conflict. Admittedly, there is some appeal in listening to their eloquent, well-spoken dialogue, but this soon becomes tiresome, paling in comparison to the film’s other merits.
One such merit is its world-building, with The Last Duel having fashioned a vast, enchanting and rather accurate medieval setting for its characters to inhabit. There’s no shortage of beautiful scenery, with the feature having been shot on-location in Ireland and France; the meticulous set design adds further to the realism, as do the costume designs of Janty Yates – a regular collaborator of Scott’s – who adorns the characters in era-appropriate fabrics and all other manner of regalia. Truly, this is the closest a Hollywood production can come to being an authentic recreation of the feudal era.
It’s a view that’s further enforced by the knightly battles that Sir Jean and Jacques partake in. These action sequences of clashing swords and armour-clad soldiers on horseback are littered throughout The Last Duel, evoking Scott’s work on Gladiator (2000) and warranting praise for being tense, brutal and expertly choreographed. Yet more excitement is generated through the close-up cinematography and terrific sound editing in these scenes, allowing viewers to feel that they are very much part of these violent encounters.
Eliciting just as much satisfaction are the performances of the leads, both the young and not-so-young. Adam Driver and Jodie Comer are their usual luminous, unflappable selves, once again providing turns that belie their age and experience; Matt Damon is also solid, though the same cannot be said for his impression of a British accent. Surprisingly, the highlight is actually Damon’s producing partner and real-life buddy Ben Affleck, whose carefree, amusing and somewhat irreverent effort as Count Pierre d’Alençon constantly brings a smile to the face.
Through its acting, direction and vivid replication of the medieval era, The Last Duel manages to be an intriguing drama with serviceable thrills. Ridley Scott’s film is not a masterpiece by any means – the male characters are given too much focus, and the plot’s chaptered structure is somewhat pointless – but nonetheless is a reminder of why he’s considered one of the industry’s greats.
The Last Duel is currently screening in select cinemas.