Cert – 18, Run-time – 2 hours 33 minutes, Director – Ridley Scott
A pair of knights (Matt Damon, Adam Driver) find themselves competing in a duel to the death after one accuses the other of raping his wife (Jodie Comer), who will burn at the stake if her husband loses.
Amongst the effectively bloody battles of 14th Century medieval France Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s screenplay (the first joint script for the latter duo since their Oscar winning turn for 1997’s Good Will Hunting) for The Last Duel bubbles beneath with the slight memory based drama (each writer tackles a different stage/ memory in the narrative) largely for the two parties involved in the titular duel. There hasn’t been a duel to the death in France for many years, however when his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) claims to have been raped by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), knight Jean de Carrouges challenges the man he believed to have been his closest friend to prove his protests of innocence wrong. We see the events play out from the perspectives of the three main parties, all building up to the duel – which also acts as our dramatic introduction to the film – where Marguerite could find herself burned alive for providing false witness if her husband loses.
As the film travels across its lines it shifts from simply being about the responses and changing behaviours of the two central figures over the course of the film’s events and begins to delve into the gender politics of the time. The belief that women were property to provide men with an heir – it’s claimed that “rape is not a crime against a woman, it is a property crime against her husband”. There are certainly some interesting points as the film begins to touch upon such subject matter, and there’s particularly potential for the final strand focusing on Comer’s character, however it feels that after what has come beforehand that her strand – which should really be the most pivotal – feels somewhat underwritten. Even as the film finally turns to focus on her Marguerite feels like the support in her own truthful take on events. The feeling of the film becoming more basic and less detailed certainly begins to settle in as the three takes on the tragic event come together in the fateful duel.
It’s testament to the film that you don’t really feel the two and a half hour run-time and largely this comes from the interest created within Driver and Damon’s own segments. The relationships that twist and turn around them as they put across their own worries and arguments, particularly as their friendship is already on uneven ground before de Carrouges leaves his wife alone at home – although believing her to be with his cold mother (Harriet Walker) and servants. Director Ridley Scott does a good job of piecing things together throughout the narrative, showing the different perspectives while still reminding us of how other characters appear to have ‘perceived’ the events. This even goes for those of whom we don’t see the viewpoint of – such as Ben Affleck’s Pierre d’Alençon, a close ally of Le Gris with a high sex-drive who seems both oddly fitting for the film and yet somewhat out of place with his levels of comic relief; either way Affleck’s clearly having a great deal of fun playing the character.
Scott’s direction also helps to capture the atmosphere and visual flair of plenty of scenes. The detail that has gone into the sets and costume design of the piece demonstrates the high budget of the film. It helps to engage you within the world and the unfolding events – particularly within the first two strands, and it’s perhaps what helps keep you somewhat in place during the point which should really be Comer’s time to shine. We do get some brief yet engaging courtroom style drama, and by the time we finally get to the big battle it’s well done, yet you can’t help but feel that things would be heightened if Comer’s character truly had more room rather than still having her story told through those around her, and what begins to feel like their words and actions over hers. The drama still generally works and keeps you in place, it just feels as if it shifts and not quite to the right place to allow the character who should be the central focus to be just that.
There’s plenty to like about the detail of The Last Duel. Both visually and within the course that it takes throughout the narrative. Helped by Ridley Scott’s direction there are a handful of themes to pass through over the two and a half hour course – which isn’t overly felt – and most of them are dealt with rather well. While the first two perspectives are well dealt with and detailed when it comes to the relationships that build up to the titular duel you can’t help but feel that the third strand is somewhat pushed back and not as detailed as it could be, particularly when it comes to truly giving material for Jodie Comer to shine with. The final fight still works, and the drama still has effect, just not in the way you would perhaps hope.
The detail, themes and drama of The Last Duel are generally well held, particularly when it comes to the relationships and conversations in the build up to the duel for the two central figures. It’s just a shame that Jodie Comer’s underdeveloped pivotal character doesn’t ever completely come to the fore.