Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel combines bloody combat with sexual intrigue, smashingly
Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, one of the most captivating films of the fall season, has more than one thing in common with another recent standout, David Lowery’s The Green Knight. In addition to its historical/literary adventure framework and its reliance on warriors in clanking armor, director Scott’s drama of lusty goings-on in 14th-century France takes a movie subgenre we’re so familiar with that we’re tempted to dismiss it sight unseen, and gallops off in an unaccustomed direction. We actually recognize these people. They may not look like us, but they behave in ways that haven’t changed very much in the last 700 years. The story of their lives and deaths make us want to reconsider everything we thought we knew about swords, chain mail, castles, and the capricious intrigues of upper-class Europeans.
Working from a script by filmmaker Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits, Friends with Money) and actors/writers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, veteran filmmaker Scott enlarges upon his predilection for action-filled costumers (Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator) by visiting author Eric Jager’s account of a pair of ancient combatants, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France. Suspenseful story, insightful adaptation, gorgeous expositional scene-setting and most impressive of all, a first-rate cast operating at full throttle.
Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon) is ferocious on the battlefield, lopping off limbs and hacking everyone in his path to little pieces. And yet there’s something a bit lacking in the knight’s people skills back home in Normandy. The style of witticism and backstairs treachery practiced in the court of King Charles VI (played as a moronic sissy by Alex Lawther) escapes Carrouges. He’s more comfortable riding out in full armor against all foes in the Hundred Years War.
Carrouges’ wartime ally, squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), taller and more imposing than his commanding officer, nevertheless plainly envies Carrouges’ social position. He’s a kindred-spirit vassal of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck) – the very portrait of corrupt sardonicism — and together they take every opportunity to ridicule plain-spoken hero Carrouges.
The plot thickens considerably when Carrouges weds Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer) It’s arranged as a business deal between a poor nobleman and a rich one. Marguerite is a beautiful young aristocrat who brazenly plays footsie with the valiant men around her, especially the rascally Le Gris, behind the back of poor, oblivious Carrouges. One thing leads to another and trouble ensues — a Middle Ages brand of trouble involving chivalric ritual, the church, torture, the threat of burning at the stake, and of course further heavy combat.
The screenplay presents this violent marital melodrama in a Rashomon-like series of retellings from the points of view of Marguerite, her husband and her lover, with all the trimmings. It’s great fun to watch longtime offscreen pals Affleck and Damon conducting their own drawing-room verbal “duels.” Affleck’s manipulative overlord Alençon wears a permanent sneer on his face when it comes to Damon’s brutal-but-stolid Carrouges. Meanwhile Driver’s Le Gris dominates his scenes with pure physicality as well as a secret weapon – he woos Marguerite with poetry, something the illiterate killer Carrouges cannot do. As for Comer, she rules Marguerite’s central role with the merest flutter of an eyelash. This is a woman who intends to go places – we feel sorry for the men who stand in her way.
Producer-director Scott orchestrates the scenery-chewing with practiced detachment and his usual flair for grotesque spectacle, but also with a modern ironic tone in its interpersonal relations — Carrouges is the dumb jock who gets the cheerleader but nearly bores her to death. The Last Duel, one of the many missing films of 2020, was in production when the pandemic caused it to shut down temporarily. In that respect it’s one of the most significant pop-cultural survivors of Covid-19. Royal pageantry is timeless, but so are ultra-violence, adulterous sex and governmental corruption.