It’s 1386. Paris. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is set in combat against one Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a duel to the death before King and country. What sets in motion the death blows of this one-time friendship is a dark and twisty tale of a heinous crime and a legal system that surely isn’t a ‘justice system’. It’s a novel, intriguing, though imperfect tale, but it’s ultimately driven home by a stunning emotional performance from Jodie Comer that makes it a film you shouldn’t miss.
We discover Sir Jean (Matt Damon) returning from a mercantile trek, one that kept him away from home. On one long, fateful day, his wife Marguerite (an exceptional Jodie Comer) was home alone, when some deception by Jacques allows the man to enter their home, forcing himself on Marguerite and leaving. She confesses to Sir Jean that Jacques had raped her, but in an era where women were seen as property (and the legal system was corrupt on top of that) Sir Jean opts to force the issue in the only way he knows—a duel, to the death, to settle the Jacques’ guilt.
The story is told Rashomon-style in three segments, one each from the perspectives of Sir Jean, Jacques, and Marguerite (in that order), with considerable overlap in events (admitting to different versions of some events, of course) as the narrative unfolds. It’s a relatively unique and not entirely common exercise in perspective that adds some unexpected dynamics in what could otherwise be a fairly standard narrative.
For all its novelty, though, the experimental structure doesn’t entirely land for two simple reasons. On the one hand, it admits to significant repetition of events… it isn’t boring per se, but some of the events are inessential to the crux of the story and their repetition merely adds time to an already long film (how many times do we need to see two men grasp hands? It doesn’t add much to the story to see it thrice, but it does add to the 152 minute runtime.
The real problem, however, cuts a little deeper—there isn’t that much difference between the perspectives. Marguerite’s is easily the most engaging of the three, but her account of the tragic wrong is nearly identical to Jacques’ in portrayal… The perhaps 95% similarity between the two segments undercuts the notion that differences in subjectivity are being captured in the film (which is further undercut by the tactical text fade of the words ‘The Truth’ preceding Marguerite’s segment… it’s an unnecessary caution in a film that makes it clear Marguerite is to be believed). This isn’t to say, of course, that there should be a segment where Jacques is made out to be innocent, everything consensual in his head, but rather it highlights the point that the novel structure doesn’t really capture anything that a more straightforward telling of the tale would do.
All this aside, The Last Duel is a Ridley Scott film, so unsurprisingly it’s technically stunning, adeptly shot, tightly edited, with stunning action sequences. Seriously, let’s take a moment to appreciate that no working director can capture the ancient fog of war, the chaotic bloodfest that is battle, with as much prowess as Ridley Scott does time and again. His powers, yet again, are on full display here.
The sum total of these parts is a realism that’s underscored by a number of exceptional performances. Jodie Comer’s Marguerite, the only character in the central triad of characters with little by way of actual historical accounts, is a stunning, nuanced, powerful performance that drives the story forward and dominates every scene she’s in. It’s stunning. Matt Damon’s Sir Jean, by contrast, is a little stiff but passable—it’s a workable performance of a one-note military man that does exactly what’s needed ably but won’t be the performance you recount when you’re recalling the film for others. Adam Driver’s Jacques is admittedly a little uneven in the earliest segment (both in mastering the different character variants in different characters’ memories, and in his accent) but it’s largely made up for by his tremendous screen presence. Finally, Ben Affleck’s Count Pierre d’Alençon is a corrupt, womanizing cad, but Affleck brings so much frat boy bravado to the role that he’s amusing in every scene.
Issues with the success of the structure aside, it’s a well written script that highlights the travesty of the lack of women’s rights in that time and place. The story itself unfolds well, with Comer’s performance proving phenomenal and heartbreaking throughout. Even as the dual ends in a feverish swath of violence, there’s a pit of dissatisfaction in the reality that it isn’t the happy ending it’s cracked up to be… it took all that for a tragedy to be avenged, for Marguerite to get some degree of justice? And that’s precisely the point.
For all its imperfections, The Last Duel is an admirable experiment in storytelling driven by a fantastic performance by Jodie Comer. Its a heartbreaking, occasionally blood soaked drama that’s easily worth your time.
The Last Duel premieres October 15th.