Review by Sadbh Boylan
The Last Duel (Ridley Scott, 2021) sees writer-actor duo Matt Damon and Ben Affleck reunite almost twenty-five years after their first collaboration– Good Will Hunting (Gus van Sant, 1997)– launched them to superstardom, this time joining forces with Nicole Holofcener to adapt Eric Jager’s 2004 historical page turner of the same name. The film follows the events that preceded the last legally sanctioned duel in France; namely, Jean de Carrouges’ (Matt Damon) challenge to former ally Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) to a trial by combat following accusations of rape from his wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). A tale of three chapters, new layers are unravelled as the ‘truth’ is examined from the perspectives of Carrouge, le Gris and- most candidly- Marguerite. Impressively, The Last Duel manages to handle its heavy subject matter with care and- at times- surprising nuance, striking a delicate balance between grandiose historical drama and thoughtful reflection that makes for compelling viewing.
While not lacking in impressive set pieces, it is The Last Duel’s study of the male and female experience and reflection on traditional patriarchal structures that elevate it beyond mere spectacle. Indeed, the film is most impactful when it is at its most subtle; slight variance in delivery and tweaking of dialogue according to each perspective speaks volumes without becoming too heavy-handed. Much of this comes to bear in the final- and strongest- chapter, ‘The Truth According to Marguerite de Carrouges’, credited to writer Holofcener. However, that it takes until the closing act for these discrepancies to truly resonate makes it all the more unfortunate that a larger portion of the running time (a hefty 2hrs 33mins) was not dedicated to Marguerite’s perspective. A greater allocation of time to Marguerite’s truth may also have helped to flesh out the underdeveloped female supporting cast- a glaring flaw in the storytelling that runs counter to its message of female empowerment.
Fortunately, Marguerite herself is afforded more than sufficient depth, and dominates the third act courtesy of a powerhouse performance by Comer. Aided by focused direction from Scott, Comer shoulders The Last Duel’s most emotive scenes with magnetic presence. Damon and Driver likewise deserve merit for their portrayals of Carrouge and Le Gris respectively, with both actors effectively altering their performance according to the appropriate perspective. The most fun, however, was undoubtedly had by the unsettlingly blond Affleck, who isn’t afraid to dial it up as the extravagant Count Pierre d’Alecon.
It would be remiss to conclude without acknowledging that, aesthetically, The Last Duel is stunning. Scott’s signature attention to detail ensures each scene is as immersive as the last. Credit is also owed to the remarkable sound design that leans heavily into the diegetic sounds of the setting- the thundering of hooves, the singing of metal and crackling of fire- to craft a mesmerising soundscape that is best enjoyed on the big screen. In short, although not quite the ground-breaking triumph of Good Will Hunting, The Last Duel just about balances epic proportions and delicate themes, bolstered by immaculate visual detail, enthralling sound design and engaging performances. While it may not go down in history as Affleck and Damon’s magnum opus, the pair- along with Holofcener- should nevertheless be commended for successfully delivering spectacular Medieval action that carries the emotional weight of its central themes with unexpected grace.