How glorious is it that Sir Ridley Scott has returned to the historic epics he’s done so well before? The Last Duel is unlike Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, though, because it’s a much more human story than either of those, as well as one that relates very much to our world today. It’s also based on a true story, as adapted from Eric Jager’s 2004 book by no less than Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, the latter two playing key roles in the film.
Set in late 14th Century France, The Last Duel is about a friendship turned sour between two war colleagues, Damon’s Jean de Carrouge and Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, the latter who has found favor with Affleck’s Count Pierre d’Alençon, much to Carrouge’s consternation. Jean does manage to score a beautiful bride in Jodie Comer’s Marguerite, but the feuding between her husband and Le Gris continues, starting with a land dispute and turning into an accusation by Marguerite that Le Gris raped her. Determined to win back his wife’s (and his own) honor, de Carrouge challenges his former friend to a duel to the death.
Seems simple enough, but as some might expect, Sir Ridley is not going to make a period piece set during a war and not offer a few war scenes, although they’re short, because we constantly have to get back to the relationship between the three main characters. Once we’re told the general story once, clearly through de Carrouge’s eyes, we go back and see a very different story from the perspective of Le Gris. Jean’s boorish behavior in his version of the story is exaggerated and exacerbated through the eyes of Le Gris, and Marguerite gets to tell her “truth,” her husband is made to look even worse.
Comer proves once again that she’s one of the more formidable actors from the past few years, because she clearly has the toughest role in the film by playing a character whose minor facial expression changes say so much in the scenes that are repeated. Damon also gives a stirring performance as a character who is by no means a straight-up good or bad character at any given time, but he’s one you empathize with at times and question at others.
Driver’s charms are on full display throughout, as is his villainy, and it’s interesting that many of the scenes between Marguerite and her would-be rapist are similar in terms of words and actions, although Le Gris’s intentions are clearly more malevolent from her viewpoint. Affleck’s Count, who appears only for moments in the first and third tellings of this story, almost steals Le Gris’ telling from Driver with his randy ribaldry and constant put-downs of de Carrouge, and riffs that includes telling his friend Le Gris to “deny, deny, deny.”
What’s interesting and particularly well done with the screenplay is that it makes sure to only include participants in scenes in which they actually would have been, so Comer’s Marguerite never appears in the war scenes, and neither she nor her husband appear when the Count and Le Gris are conspiring against him.
Beyond the three main actors, the cast is filled with so many great supporting actors that allows you to smile from a line by Jean’s mother (Harriet Walter, who like Comer, appeared in Killing Eve) or just a giddy look of sadism from the young King Charles VI (Alex Lawther).
More than anything, it’s yet another fantastic-looking film from DoP Dariusz Wolski ASC (Oscar-nominated for last year’s News of the World), in which every shot that sets up a location is like a Renaissance painting. Much of that can also be attributed to Production Designer Arthur Max, who has done that role for Sir Ridley going all the way back to 1997’s G.I. Jane. Max’s art team has the very cool task of some grand exteriors but also some terrific interiors, perfectly set decorated by Judy Farr. You know there have to be some visual effects (or at least matte-like painting) involved with some of those locations, but you just don’t care, because those scenes thrust you right back into that period and time.
It’s impossible not to make a mental note about the grandeur of the costumes in a period piece like this, Scott’s regular Costume Designer Janty Yates clearly being able to have some fun with the traditional Medieval gab, particularly with the King and Queen and Affleck’s Count, whose wardrobe gets quite flashy during the second telling. Likewise, the hair and make-up designs, which includes giving Damon’s character a mullet and a deep scar across his cheek.
The score by Harry Gregson-Williams, who has yet to receive a single Oscar nomination mind you, frequently delves into period instruments and then at other times, might use something like a grand pipe organ to fully step up the tension for the inevitable duel, which is only teased as the film begins. Scott does include a few of the epic battle scenes from movies like Gladiator, but they’re far shorter and never intended to be the focus of the piece.
It’s more than two hours before we get to the duel announced by the title, and by that point, you’re ready to see these two arch-rivals go at it tooth-and-nail. That is exactly what they do, as we watch the duo viciously clash in a scene cut together with perfect aplomb by Oscar-winning Editor Claire Simpson (Platoon), who astonishingly is only working with Scott for a second time.
The amount of tension created by watching this same story and many scenes from different perspectives does its job to create build the necessary curiosity in the viewer, and it’s impossible not to watch Marguerite’s treatment and not think of the #MeToo movement and the many brave men and women who have come forward only to face similar degrees of ridicule and questioning.
The Last Duel is one of Ridley Scott’s best films in quite some time, a solid story and screenplay that plays to the director’s strengths, but also one that pulls together a fantastic cast and crew to take it over the top. (You might want to sit down once you realize that Scott has another movie, House of Gucci, coming out in just one month, just days before he turns 84!)
The Last Duel will open in North American theaters on Friday, October 15.
All photos courtesy 20th Century Studios.