A real life medieval fallout gets a zippy, timely adaptation courtesy of co-writers Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener
For a director who hasn’t made a movie under 110 minutes since the 1980s, Ridley Scott sure knows a thing or two about pacing. Hollywood’s most efficient director brings the same economy he’s long been associated with behind-the-scenes to the forefront in The Last Duel, a sharp and provocative political thriller set in 14th century Normandy. Though two and a half hours long, canny editing choices and a wonderfully zippy style ensure the 83-year-old’s latest film stays light on its feet.
Not that The Last Duel is a particularly weightless affair. Starring Matt Damon as knight-in-grubby-armour Jean de Carrouges, it begins with him set to joust Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) in front of a baying audience, which includes Jean’s panicked wife Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer) and Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck),
Then we flash back to how we got here – sort of. The Last Duel chooses three of its most important characters to essentially narrate their role in the story, a narrative conceit made iconic by Rashomon more than 70 years ago. Yet though Rashomon was set during the anarchic golden age of the samurai in ancient Japan, Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece showed little violence and even less samurai action. The Last Duel is quite the opposite: producers and co-writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck opt for something much more digestible. Less thought experiment, more brutal wartime drama.
Presumably this is where Scott’s ears first perked up. The Gladiator director has had a taste for historical epics ever since his 1977 debut The Duellists. That the titular fighters were Keith Carradine and a dashing young Harvey Keitel shows just how long Scott has been playing this game. That experience comes across: The Last Duel is a thrilling moral puzzle which reveals its secrets sparingly, and prompts plenty of guesswork. Few characters are who they seem. Fewer are who they say they are.
The other side of the coin is that The Last Duel does remind us it was made by a male director whose recent filmography is defined by a particularly macho sensibility. Though he furthered the representation of women on screen with Alien and Thelma & Louise, no one was asking for Scott’s take on sexual assault, consent and #MeToo. Yet The Last Duel is that. Comer’s character is dragged through the mud of the 14th century French court system after making an accusation against a wealthy and well-connected courtier. The Last Duel litigates her victimhood, even repeating a particularly traumatic scene as part of its multi-perspective structure.
There is, admittedly, a strong argument for what The Last Duel is doing. Co-writer Nicole Holofcener and Comer offer a crucial authenticity to the movie’s presentation of the patriarchy. In such an edible and seemingly masculine movie, those ideas could even reach a younger, male viewership who wouldn’t otherwise be paying attention. Whether The Last Duel gets through to the audience it’s intended for, and in the right way, is yet to be seen.
The Last Duel was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 15 October.Where to watch