Review: Ridley Scott's 'The Last Duel' Engages and Stuns

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday November 30, 2021

'The Last Duel'
'The Last Duel'  (Source:20th Century Fox/Disney)

It has been over 16 years since Ridley Scott last mounted a handsome period blockbuster, and of course that film was "Kingdom of Heaven." ("Exodus: Gods and Kings" doesn't count because it's not handsome.) Scott found a way to show off his technical bravado in staging this huge production while also delivering character work the likes of which is becoming rarer with every passing year. That kind of filmmaker-material synergy may be even more rare. But Scott has found a way to not only recreate that energy, but push it in another direction with "The Last Duel."

Based upon the novel written by Eric Jager, and written for the screen by the trio of Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nicole Holofcener, "The Last Duel" revels in its period setting and offers a main narrative device that begs for further introspection, especially as the moral rot of 1300s-era France is as internalized in its characters as it is prevalent in exterior pomp and circumstance. But for that device to work, the story needs to have enough depth to bear repeating. This film has that, and a slew of main performances that somehow dodge the inherent silliness of watching Ben Affleck and Matt Damon get dressed up in squire garb. That alone is worth celebrating.

In 14th century France, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), the wife of an honorable squire named Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), has to defend herself in the court of law and public opinion after claiming she has been raped. Sir Jean mounts a campaign against Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) — his wife's accused assailant, a former friend and, now, honored squire under Count Pierre d'Alençon (Ben Affleck) — and challenges him to a duel... the last recognized judicial duel in France's history.

The story is told from multiple perspectives and offers significantly different details. That device opens up challenges, including the repetition of material that could easily have an ad nauseum effect if not approached correctly. But here, the acting and editing are tight enough to make it all work. Affleck, Damon and Driver are all experts at showing off the noble ignorance of man, while Jodie Comer carefully navigates the unspoken power her character has to have to work properly, and the spoken power of a woman smarter than her male counterparts but smart enough not to threaten men with her power. Naturally, that's because of the male-dominated social hierarchy in 14th century France.

Where Ridley Scott really lends the material its best sequences is, of course, during the duel. Rather than some needlessly violent and boorish action-heavy scene, it plays out as the culmination of all the smaller moments we've sat with throughout the film. It truly feels like a climax in that it highlights all of the main players at crucial stages in their lives, while also showing off the pure, unfiltered truth of the story. There are a few other action-heavy sequences, all of which carry the kind of leaden-but-fun, ham-fisted swordplay that "Kingdom of Heaven" had so much of.

At over two and a half hours, "The Last Duel" can feel like a patient sit, but if you're invested enough in the outcome of the story, then it won't feel nearly as long. It's edited in such a way where a lot of the repetition is cut out, save for the few moments where the nuances of each character matter. Even more, some of the cuts feel deliberate in their obfuscation of the truth.

Now that we're headed into Hollywood's supposed prestige season, it's nice to get films that remind you how these grand-scale dramas can feel when done right. Come for the pomp and circumstance, stay for the nuance.

"The Last Duel" arrives on Digital November 30

and on 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™ and DVD December 14