Ridley Scott's The Last Duel transports viewers to 14th century France, when deceit, lust, and bad haircuts took people farther than they should have and honor was always second to pride. While Scott based his film on historical events, he retrofits the story for modern audiences, tweaking everything from specific turns of phrase (certainly medieval Frenchwomen didn't use “all the rage” all that often), to personalities and proclivities.
Scott's epic plods through choppy skirmishes, exhausting pleasantries, and patrilineal pride to arrive at its actual point: the trial and holy judgement of Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a squire charged with raping the wife of his former friend Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon).
Driver and Damon are fantastically convincing, but Jodie Comer's Marguerite de Carrouges is the real showstopper. She stares down the culture, customs, and featherless peacocking of medieval France, refusing to bow to feeble egos and wobbly arguments. She is the hero of this story, and the filmmakers ensure there's no mistaking it.
And then you have Ben Affleck's Count Pierre, who spends much of his screen time partying and commanding Le Gris to stop moving the plot forward and shed his trousers. He's clearly having a blast, even if his antics conflict directly with the overall tone.
Narrative bloat and jarring silliness aside, its quality is clear: Ridley Scott's stand against patriarchal gaslighting is a technical and emotional triumph. It falters in its first half and rightly refuses to endear either Carrouges or Le Gris to audiences, but the duel bookending the story is astoundingly satisfying.
Getting there, though, occasionally proves just as engaging. Scott neatly partitions his interpretation into three acts, or accounts, that cover the same chunk of time through different perspectives. The structure alone is smart; by building toward the truth, Scott and his team are able to illustrate who these two men are and why the stakes are so high for the woman caught in the middle.
The Last Duel is just as effective as a period piece as it is a stab at the mental gymnastics men perform to maintain their stranglehold on society. The set designs are elaborate and immersive. The characters are overly formal and shamelessly sycophantic. It's all absurdly absorbing and well-acted. The most striking aspect of this retelling, however, is its emphasis on the distinction between powerful men and strong men. The movie is flawed, but the way it depicts the mental and emotional fragility of men in high places is more than worthy of our attention.
Scott has a winner on his hands.
THE LAST DUAL is in cinemas everywhere from October 15th