‘The Last Duel’ movie review: rich historical epic rates among Ridley Scott’s best

A 14th-century French knight challenges his former friend to a duel to the death in The Last Duel, a thematically complex historical epic from director Ridley Scott that challenges familiar notions of courage and honor by splitting the narrative of its events across three different perspectives.

Based on Eric Jager’s 2004 novel The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France, Scott’s film provides three different spins on a well-researched historical event. But unlike Rashomon, which calls the nature of the events themselves into question, The Last Duel largely sticks to the facts while allowing its distinct viewpoints to each create a wholly different view of the same material – and the very nature of what it means to be heroic.

The Last Duel stars Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges, a Norman knight who loses favor with Count Pierre d’Alençon (portrayed by Ben Affleck) while his one-time friend and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) rises in the Count’s ranks in 14th-century France during the Hundred Years’ War.

After a series of perceived offenses – Le Gris is bequeathed land and a captainship that de Carrouges feels are rightfully his – the rivalry between the two comes to a head when de Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses Le Gris of rape. This leads de Carrouges to challenge Le Gris to trial by combat in a duel to the death in Paris to prove his wife’s account is true.

In de Carrouges’ version of events, which The Last Duel opens with, Damon portrays the knight as a headstrong but heroic figure who leaps into battle to save lives despite orders to stand down. He’s a prototype of courage, like the Russell Crowe character in Scott’s Gladiator, choosing to take the morally right path at every turn despite the challenges that lie ahead and the future harm it may bring him.

But as the events of The Last Duel lead up to the titular bout, the narrative shifts focus to retell the entire story: this time from Le Gris’ standpoint. Told from his perspective, Damon’s de Carrouges is headstrong and reckless, and any animosity between the two is cultivated by his own actions. Le Gris defends his friend to Affleck’s Count, though he must accept generosity from his lord that may have otherwise went to de Carrouges.

Any goodwill Driver has managed to build up during his portrayal of Le Gris is lost during The Last Duel’s crucial rape scene, the result of longing looks between Le Gris and Marguerite that manifests in the form of premeditated assault. “She put up the customary resistance,” he tells Pierre, defending what he is convinced was a consensual affair. Even 14th-century France knew better, as the Count advises him to deny the entire incident.

Still, Le Gris wields his own brand of courage when challenged by his former friend. Fully convicted in his own warped version of events, and left no alternative to preserve his honor, Le Gris is portrayed in something of a courageous light as he enters a duel to the death with a more experienced combatant.

But true courage is only witnessed during The Last Duel’s final version of events, told by Comer’s Marguerite: here, we see courage in the form of a woman who brings forth allegations of rape, knowing the devastating consequences (for her) that come along with them. In Marguerite’s version of the story, Damon’s de Carrouges is not a hero who comes to her aid and fights for her honor, but another obstacle in her path she must confront to tell her story.

The Last Duel labels the final version of the story, as told by Marguerite, the “true” version of the events, which might lead some to wonder why the other two versions were told at all. But unlike Rashomon, which asks viewers to reconcile drastically different narratives, the viewpoints in The Last Duel generally don’t contradict each other, but rather showcase the fleeting nuances of truth in a society dominated by extreme interpretations.

As Affleck’s Count tells Le Gris, those nuances are often lost on the general public; in a divisive time at the box office, The Last Duel has unfortunately tanked. But Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener have put together a perceptive spin on a fascinating historical event, and allowed director Scott to have his cake and eat it, too: this movie both delivers the on the classic hero story a la Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven, and calls that very narrative interpretation into question.

Bolstered by first-rate visual effects, gorgeous sets and costumes, evocative cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and a moody score from Harry Gregson-Williams, The Last Duel may not be represented at end-of-year award ceremonies, but it’s one of the best and most thoughtful Hollywood films released this year.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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