The Last Duel
The Last Duel Cast: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
The Last Duel Director: Ridley Scott
The Last Duel Stars: 3/5
With the #MeToo movement picking steam over the last couple of years, especially with the fall of disgraced Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, the timing of The Last Duel hitting theatre screens is a bit puzzling. What hits harder home is how The Last Duel is former Miramax darlings Ben Affleck and Matt Damon‘s first writing collaboration since their Oscar-winning film, Good Will Hunting.
This time around, Ben and Matt share the writing credits with Can You Forgive Me? co-writer, Nicole Holofcener, who provides a subtle yet effective voice to the titular female character; Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). With the runtime just short of two hours, the narrative structure used is divided into three humdrum chapters, with three starkly different individual perspectives about the same tragic incident. Taking place in 14th century France, The Last Duel, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book, recounts the last judiciary duel fought in France where God was deemed the judge. knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) challenges his estranged friend, squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) to a duel for allegations of sexually assaulting his wife, Marguerite.
The heartbreaking tale envisions the POVs of Jean and Le Gris before switching gears with Marguerite’s moving account. As you’d expect, the first two chapters drive high on testosterone and claim women as nothing but property to be owned and devoured while the final and most intriguing chapter narrates Marguerite’s truth being spoken under watchdogs, ready to destroy her own reputation and even burn her alive at a moment’s notice. In the first two chapters, which Ben and Matt co-wrote together, there isn’t too much prominence on Jean and Le Gris’ friendship to make it believable when it all fizzles out and becomes a battle of humongous egos instead. This is portrayed when Marguerite confides in Carrouges of Le Gris sexually assaulting her and rather than checking up on his wife’s mental state of mind, Jean’s first response is; “Can this man do nothing but evil to me?!” Rather, heavy detailing is indulged when it comes to the rousing action sequences. With The Duellists and Gladiator under his impressive repertoire, you can best be assured that the historical action pieces were carefully curated by Scott, particularly, the bloody, gruesome final duel.
However, the first two chapters feel like an overtaxed, sloppy mess because it never really sticks its landing on either of the characters. In comparison, Nicole does a fine job in emulating the painful, repressed trauma felt by Marguerite as she fights for the truth, even at the risk of her own life. What doesn’t help the least is how her own husband treats her as nothing but his asset while Le Gris literally mansplains assaulting her, with an arrogant mindset that she enjoyed their rendezvous. Or in other words, it was Marguerite “customary protests,” before giving her consent. What The Last Duel excels at is angering its viewers because many of the subtle dominant moments in a patriarchal world hit home centuries later, even today.
A plus point of The Last Duel, barring the cluttered, convoluted script, is Arthur Max’s expansive production design of a 1386 France while Dariusz Wolski’s hazardous, intimate cinematography and Harry Gregson-Williams ruthlessly dramatic music adds oomph to the battle sequences, making it an even deadlier spectacle of epic proportions to watch. Alas, Claire Simpson’s lacklustre editing can be attributed to the heaviness of the script. There’s only so many times we’d like to rewatch gnarly men killing each other in cold sweat. As I’d mentioned before, the final duel was executed with such precision, that you can’t take your eyes off of it for even a second because you’d miss something exponential in every blink of the eye.
Another intriguing factor that can’t be neglected in The Last Duel is the believable performances by the star-studded ensemble with Jodie reigning supreme, thanks to her nuanced, empowering standout performance as Marguerite. Comer instills Marguerite’s overpowering emotions with dignified grace. As for Matt, the jury is divided because the skittish accent and god awful mullet distract from Damon’s otherwise complex performance as a character like Carrouges, which we’ve not seen the Oscar-nominated actor play before. With his princely avatar in black luscious locks, Adam delivers a tantalising performance as the flamboyant Le Gris, who is a certified a**hole but proudly believes he’s the innocent one. “We couldn’t help ourselves,” Le Gris laments at Marguerite.
The one who has the most fun playing a scheming playboy is Ben as Count Pierre d’Alençon, King Charles VI’s cousin (Alex Lawther, delivering a performance eerily similar to King Joffrey in Game of Thrones), juggling between multiple women in bed and his unbridled trust in Le Gris, promising to protect him at any cost, while having nothing but distaste for the scruffy Carrouges. It’s Count Pierre, who provides the laughs throughout with his outlandish personality. More than his wife getting sexually assaulted, Carrouges’ ego is hurt more when Count Pierre seized and gives away the land to Le Gris, which Carrouges was supposed to receive as dowry from Marguerite’s father, as well as the captaincy which was held by Carrouges’ family for generations. It’s also emasculating for Corrouges when Marguerite isn’t able to conceive up until her sexual assault at the hands of Le Gris, much younger and more successful than him.
Also, on trial, this becomes a bone of contention where men of honour ridicule Marguerite, questioning every ulterior move. The fact that Marguerite had affirmed in passing to her supposed friends that she found Le Gris handsome, even that was rattled out of grave proportion. Here, too, Carrouges’ impromptu response is why is his wife embarrassing him in front of royalty. Harriet Walter as Jean’s mother Nicole de Buchard enlightens even in the darndest of scenes, especially in a heartbreaking conversation with Comer’s Marguerite on her decision to make the sexual assault accusations against Le Gris public and have her hounor defended, on the line.
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Nevertheless, the talented ensemble manages to make magic out of a crippled storyline as they infuse depth in each chapter, where even a kiss between two can be interpreted in multiple ways, depending on who is doing the narrating. Moreover, watching the sexual assault scene multiple times can leave a jarring effect in the contemporary eyes of a viewer, who has to sit through 153 ‘extremely long’ minutes of The Last Duel.
Focusing on the same event, from three different perspectives, can be a tricky situation because maintaining the retention levels of an audience is not an easy task, especially with theatres being shut down for almost two years and us relying on OTT platforms where you can just fast forward to the good parts. What’s unfortunate is how The Last Duel works best only in its final act and you can’t help but wonder if just one chapter was more than enough?!