Captivating! Game of Thrones meets legal drama in a thought-provoking exploration of truth, perception, and inequality told through a Rashomon-like nonlinear story that is punctuated with dark comedy to provide emotional resets and strategic tonal shifts. Easily one of my fave films of the year! I was cautious going into this film because Ridley Scott has simply not lately been delivering what we came to expect from and love him for in Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator. So after many swings and misses, I was cautiously optimistic at best (and that’s being generous). Boy, was I wrong! The Last Duel is an outstanding film, full of thoughtful content, laugh out loud moments, and relevancy to contemporary topics. Perhaps the story takes place in the 1300s, but the characters are all archetypes we see today on screen and in real life. While the Rashomon-like approach to the central story is not new, it is an approach that isn’t used often, and can easily be abused, misused, or simply not dramatically justifiable. From the hilarious to intimate performances, the cast will keep your eyes glued to the screen. You’ve never seen a medieval period drama like this one before!
Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a respected knight known for his bravery and skill on the battlefield. Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) is a squire whose intelligence and eloquence makes him one of the most admired nobles in court. When Le Gris viciously assaults Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), she steps forward to accuse her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy. The ensuing trial by combat, a grueling duel to the death, places the fate of all three in God’s hands.
The central focus of the plot is explored from three different perspectives, each depicting its own version of the truth. And never once did it feel repetitive; each time we revisit the incident, inclusive of the events leading up to, we learn something new. Furthermore, we learn what each version of the truth shares in common, thus affording the audience the opportunity to make the decision of what happened and how for themselves. This non-linear approach keeps the story incredibly engaging, by beckoning the audience to be completely intrigued by the events as they unfold. Even when observing a moment that we have already seen, but from a different perspective, there are brilliant nuances that separate the versions of the truth. Sometimes it’s how something was said or the expressed emotion when it was said; other times, it’s how something was done, and the attitude with which it was conducted.
While this story could have been incredibly dark from beginning to end, there is a healthy helping of levity to break up the dismal atmosphere and heavy subject matter. And it’s not limited to cleverly written humorous dialogue, there is a substantive amount of physical comedy as well. While Matt Damon and Jodie Comer play their characters fairly direct, without much in the way of humor, the characters played by Adam Driver, Ben Affleck, and Alex Lawther provide expertly timed and perfectly punctuated comedic relief. And of all those actors, it’s Affleck that get’s the lions share of the comedic bits. Some of it is slapstick, some high brow, and other parts are executed through dark comedy. Honestly, this is probably my favorite Affleck performance in a long time! He is so funny! Every time Affleck’s Count Pierre d’Alençon is on screen, he has some hilarious commentary or remark on the current state of affairs. While Alex Lawther’s King Charles doesn’t say much, his physical reactions are all that you need! Clearly the king simply wants to watch the world burn for fun, by allowing pretty much anything that is pitched to him, as long as he seen the entertaining value in it. Lastly, Driver’s Jacques Le Gris even has some moments that will make you laugh, including laughing at the most inappropriate moment; but there is simple something in his delivery of the lines and his physical acting that prompt you to chuckles and even laughter. For all the laugher that you will exhibit when watching this film, none of it is ever in poor taste or shows irreverence for a tough subject to cover.
Matt Damon and Jodie Comer’s performances as our two central characters will astound you! Damon delivers a stellar performance and Comer may have just secured herself a place on the best actress category in the award shows next year. Despite having seen Damon in plenty of serious roles, this is my favorite of his in a long time. I love when I get to see an actor surprise me! And he delivers plenty of surprising moments that convey a multitude of layers to his character, who will elicit sympathy from you even though you will disagree at his initial reaction to his wife’s report that is the catalyst for the duel. Jodie Comer shatters any expectations you go in with regarding how the central character’s wife typically acts. Her performance is one of those that you just know that she is channeling her heart and soul into every moment. You will feel her plight to be respected and believed for what she reports happened to her. Even though we do not spend an inordinate amount of time with her until her chapter, when her chapter begins, it is clear that she is the real star of the film!
While this may not look like a classic Ridley Scott film in the vein of ALIEN or Blade Runner, it does bear similarities in stylistic approaches to Gladiator. The sweeping landscapes, the intimate character moments, the visceral atmosphere sucking you into the setting of the story, it’s all here! While adhering to what we have come to expect from a medieval period drama, Scott checks off those boxes in a rubric-like fashion, but then crafts a modern story around the classic bones. That’s precisely what The Last Duel is, it’s a relevant story on the backdrop of a dark period in history. Scott’s adaptation of the actual events is delivered with raw gusto! Very few filmmakers could rise to the challenge to adapt such a heavy story, whilst keeping it entertaining–it is a motion picture after all–but he does all that and more! More than the reenactment of an actual event, this cinematic story has life, like we haven’t seen from Scott in nearly two decades (2005’s Kingdom of Heaven is the most recent motion picture if his that is truly excellent). The images aren’t simply beautiful frames flipping past the lens at 24fps, this film leaps off the screen with prolific energy.
Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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