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Review: ‘The Last Duel’ (dir. Ridley Scott)

I’ll be honest, on paper, this sounds like a hard sell. A period piece set in France during the 1300s with kings and knights and lords and ladies and battle sequences and armor… but it works. It legitimately works.

Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Ben Affleck, The Last Duel tells the true story of the last legally sanctioned duel to happen in France, which occurred between friends turned enemies Jean de Carouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques LeGris (Adam Driver), over a rape claim submitted by Carouges’ wife, Margueritte (Jodie Comer). The film is split up into three chapters with each told from the recollection of the characters Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer, respectively. These interlaced storylines converge to the epic duel that concludes the film. (I promise, I didn’t spoil anything here, even though it sounds like it. Those are the bare bones of the plot.)

I’ll be honest, on paper, this sounds like a hard sell. A period piece set in France during the 1300s with kings and knights and lords and ladies and battle sequences and armor… but it works. It really works.

There are two battlefields at play here: the literal battlefield of war and bloody battle, and the societal battlefield that we all know a bit too well. That’s the one that deals with cultural expectations, judging onlookers, gossip, slut shaming, and victim shaming. The pressure to live up to everyone’s idea of who and what you should be. Is she really going to where a dress like that? Is she really going to wear her hair that way? Is their marriage as great as they think it is? Did he cheat on her? Did she cheat on him? It’s sad, frankly, that these conversations that were had back in the 1300s are still so relevant today in the year 2021.

Jodie Comer brings her A-game to this. We don’t get to see much from her to start with, but when she comes into the picture, she commands the screen. It’s no secret that she’s a great actress, but I am officially and fully sold at this point. There were a number of scenes involving her character that I found excruciatingly painful to get through, and I can only imagine what she had to put herself through as an actor to tap into that place. She brings an understated sense of struggle digging far beneath the surface to draw out emotion across her face and that is evident in her body language. Her facial expressions alone speak volumes. She’s incredible in Killing Eve, no doubt about it, but you’ve never seen her like this.

Matt Damon does a really great job with this character. He gives a very convincing performance as a man who seems like he is really trying to do everything right despite his shortcomings, and you see that struggle in Damon’s face. He is very convincing, and you feel for his character while acknowledging what he’s doing wrong.

Adam Driver can truly play any character you throw at him. He can be extremely like-able in one role and easy to hate in another, but he can kind of do no wrong at this point. You know that viral meme that won’t let up of Adam Driver in Marriage Story when he punches the wall and shouts at Scarlett Johansson? His character in The Last Duel is that scene for an entire movie.

Ben Affleck offers some much-needed levity and humor as a character that looks almost unrecognizable at first glance. He has some one-liners that are going to go down in meme history once this gets a wide release, and Twitter can screenshot and make gifs out of it. I would love to see him in the awards conversation for this role because it’s just so outrageous. I adored every scene he was in, and he brought an unfiltered flare to this film that so many call dry. Well, you can’t complain about that here.

Harriet Walker plays the mother of Matt Damon’s character, and her interactions with Jodie Comer’s character offer some of the most intense mother-in-law/daughter-in-law conversations. Alex Lawther, who you may recognize from The End of the F***ing World, plays a perfectly off-beat King Charles VI. He’s a young king, clearly still learning the ropes of his power, and it shows.

I did seem to notice the fact that the first two chapters of the film were written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck while the third chapter was written by Nicole Holofcener, a woman. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing, but you do have an inherent masculine lens and a particular feminine lens through which this story is being told. In the end, those countering perspectives best serve the overall story in a very satisfying way (well, at least in terms of the storyline itself).

The production design is exquisite. The sets look so realistic, and I believed that I was seeing something from the 14th century. I was amazed at how many animals they brought into this production with endless horses, cows, sheep, dogs, ducks, geese, and pigs. The cinematography is spectacular. I particularly liked how it was shot and edited so that it was visually very dark but not to the extent that I had trouble seeing what was taking place. The lighting illuminated just the right aspects of the shot that it needed. The score was great, and the tone accurately shifts between intense and forbidding to jovial and communal making for an accurate duality in terms of the music. The hair and makeup crew did a miraculous job. Jodie Comer’s hair alone deserves an award. The cast is flawless. Yes, we have a lot of star-power behind this, but the pure talent takes control here.

These battle sequences are some of the best I’ve seen. They’re a little on the gory side, but battles are bloody, I guess. I felt like I was right there next to them fighting, and you could just sense the intensity. The sound effects were extremely loud and really played up the vigor. Not to be the guy to make the lame comparison, but it did remind me of Game of Thrones. It had a similar level of grandeur and scale that some of that show’s battle scenes possessed. There are horses, clinking swords, yelling, more swords, blood, and more blood. It all makes for an epic, adrenaline-fueled rush.

Everyone in this movie looks like they haven’t bathed in days. They all look disgusting. I’m sure they smelled awful. (Well, except for Jodie Comer’s character. She always looked flawless with pristine skin and over-the-top hairstyles.) I was truly convinced that Matt Damon had that scar on his face, and that his hair was that wretched. Ben Affleck had me convinced for a minute that he could pull off bleached blonde hair, eyebrows, and a beard (and I mean just for a minute). 

You may think that seeing a story told three ways in a row coming from three different perspectives would get redundant. However, this film knows its bounds, and it is all the better for it. It never spends too long on a particular point or scene, so we are only exposed to new points of view each time. It also makes efficient use in its shifting locations so as not to feel jarring in that respect. 

I saw those pictures that leaked from behind the scenes on set during filming too. They were really bad. It looked like one of those educational war reenactment shows we had to watch in middle school. Things weren’t looking good. Then, I saw the trailer and was shocked by how good everything looked. The lighting and angles and makeup and hair all went together and made sense in this context. Now, having seen the film in its entirety, I know that it looks and fits together even more nicely on screen. All of that to say, don’t judge a film by its set pictures, good or bad.

Most period pieces like this one are looked at purely as Oscar bait, and I guess this could be looked at that way in some regard. It’s really easy (in theory) to throw together a bunch of period-specific hairstyles, costumes, and make-up, put them in a pretty set that resembles the times, give an all-star cast a sturdy script, and let them have at it. Director Ridley Scott and writers Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener manage to do all of these things, but it doesn’t feel like they’re checking off a checklist. Everything fires off in unison. Let this be a lesson.

The Last Duel opens in theaters this Friday, October 15.

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