I looked it up to see how it came out, Ridley Scott has directed 26 feature films, including some classics that are award worthy, and some that have been left on the curb to be disposed of. I have seen 18 of those films, so I am pretty familiar with his work, and frankly I am a fan. This movie came up and I had not heard anything about it in the production process. He has a second film that is coming in a couple of weeks that will no doubt get a lot of awards potential due to the cast. “The Last Duel” ought to have the same sort of cache because it’s cast is nothing to sneeze at, but I think because this is a Twentieth Century Films release, which means it was one of a handful of movies the Disney Company acquired when it bought 20th Century Fox, it feels like it is an unwanted child. Little P.R., no Oscar talk and it is disappearing from theaters rapidly (look for it on Disney + any time now.
As it turns out, this film does not stack up to Scott’s best work, but it is not down at the bottom with “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, or “the Counselor”, neither of which I have bothered with since I never saw a single recommendation for either. “The Last Duel” is a very well made film, it looks great, it contains some great action sequences, and the story is intriguing. The problems with the film have mostly to do with pacing and story structure, which may be partially the fault of two of the films stars since they co-wrote the script. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have collaborated with Nicole Holofcener to bring this story, based on a book which is based on an historical incident, to the screen. Like a medieval “Rashomon”, “the Last Duel” gives us different perspectives on the same event, each one favoring the person at the center of that section. So one of the problems is that we are seeing the events again, already knowing large amounts of information that are not going to change. The smaller changes, in tone and character probably needed to be emphasized in shorter segments because the length of each of these chapters is tedious. The film runs two and a half hours and unfortunately, that run time is noticeable.
Maybe this was an attempt by Affleck and Damon to answer critics who wondered how they could have worked with Harvey Weinstein and not noticed his reprehensible behavior. As a #MeToo story, Jodie Comer plays a woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted, but in a society that treats marriage as an economic contract and the wife as property, her needs in this situation seem to be the least important. Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon), has plenty of reasons to have animosity toward his former friend and warrior, Jacques Le Gris, played by Adam Driver. While not the most sympathetic of husbands, he engages in a strategy to clear his wife of fabricating the story and also exacting revenge on his opponent. Driver’s character on the other hand is supposedly shown in the most favorable light in his segment of the film, and Le Gris, still comes off as a cad, deserving of the dirtying of his name that he objects to. Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer) is trapped as a pawn for the most part in a misogynistic society that treats women as suspect simply for being women. The questions that get asked in the inquiry are humiliating and the “science” accepted at that time makes the process even worse for her. There is also a clear stigmatization of women as sexual beings, despite their sexuality being critical to the purpose of marriage which was to prove heirs. In a nod to some of the hypocrisy we see in the #MeToo movement of today, women are just as capable as men of bending events to their prejudices. Marguerite cannot even count on her best friend.
All of the soap opera and segments of battle and political intrigue that took place in the first two hours is largely there to set up the climatic title moment. Scott is in his element here, having made “Gladiator” as well as “Robin Hood” and “Kingdom of Heaven”, he knows his way around brutal one on one combat. Damon and Driver go at each other both mounted and unmounted . There are staves, axes, swords, daggers, gauntlets and assorted blood sweat and tears in the arena. All the while, we are reminded of the stakes because they are sitting right there, waiting to burn under the woman in question if the combat goes the wrong way for her. This actual historical event is the last recorded case of trial by combat to determine who is the just party. Since I did no background research before seeing the film, and I did not know the outcome, that probably added to the impact the combat sequence had on me.
So I suspect this film will soon be forgotten, but it does have some strong elements to recommend it. Affleck plays a conniving count who uses political power to protect his prized friendships, Damon builds more action hero cred with his battle scenes, Driver gets to be tall, dark, and handsome, but Jodie Comer is the one who emerges with the most credibility after our two and a half hours spent on this arcane event.