Ridley Scott shines a thought provoking light on a largely ignored part of French medieval history. With a surprising cast, captivating dialogue and tense fight scenes – this film will leave you on the edge of your seat. (4/5)
The Plot: The Last Duel is a masterclass in showing a piece of time from different perspectives. It is split into three distinct chapters which cover the same period of events but from the three main characters view points. There is Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a veteran of numerous conflicts which have left his mentality as deeply scarred as his body is. Secondly, there is Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a former comrade at arms of Jean’s, Jacques has seen fewer battles and becomes ambitious in his pursuits off the battlefield, acquiring political favour with the lords of Normandy – much to Jean’s displeasure. Finally, there is our third character, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), who marries Jean and is quickly pursued romantically by Jacques. The two men come to blows over many issues worsening their relationship but the pivotal point comes when Marguerite reveals that whilst Jean was away from the castle Jacques entered it and raped her. Jean takes the matter to the King and demands a duel to the death against Jacques to let God decide who is telling the truth. The King agrees.
Who’s telling the truth? The viewer first gets a look at the events from Jean’s perspective – he portrays himself as honourable, kind, caring and ultimately good man. He has his faults, but in the long run he is the type of knight we expect to see in a movie – brutal when needed, chivalrous when not. During the build up to the duel he believes Marguerite was raped and sees himself as defending her honour as any good husband would.
We then get a look at things from Jacques view point which is different to say the least. He sees Jean as a rash man in battle, angry, unkind, ungrateful, jealous and unpopular among his fellow knights and squires. Jacques views Marguerite as a prisoner of Jean and believes she is romantically interested in him so pursues her subtlety. As expected, from his perspective he denies the rape and sees it as rough sex between him and Marguerite which she was fully consenting to.
Finally, we get to see things from Marguerite’s side of the story and it is made clear by Ridley Scott that this is the truth when her chapter’s title is blurred out to reveal just the words “The Truth”. Marguerite’s view is balanced and tragic. In the two men’s versions of events she is seen as a footnote; a pawn in their political chess game. She has few lines and is given little screen time. But during her side of the story she is the main character and is able to show her wit, intelligence, humour and wisdom. She makes it abundantly clear that she was raped by Jacques – the rape scene is shown in full and it is a difficult watch so viewer discretion advised. Whilst showing Jacques in his true evil colours, Marguerite’s viewpoint also paints Jean is a negative light. Instead of being the comforting husband he claims to be he is in fact cold, distant and self obsessed. When telling him he has been raped his instinctive reaction is to curse Jacques for all the anguish he has brought him not his crying raped wife.
The Last Duel is clever in that it shows how each character remembers social interactions differently, often favouring themselves when in reality it was quite different. Jean’s recollection of the first battle is completely different to Jacques despite them being just meters apart from one another. It highlights the issues modern historians have with deciphering medieval accounts from the past and knowing what to believe and what is pure fiction. The film also doesn’t show anything the characters didn’t see themselves which is a big tick in the rule book for me.
A feminist ahead of her time: The Last Duel is a wonderfully crafted feminist drama and this is only revealed truly in the last third of the film. Marguerite constantly finds herself battling against a male dominated world where even when she is the victim of the most heinous of crimes she is still treated with disgust and suspicion. Marguerite learns that should Jean lose the duel and she be proved a liar she would face torture before being burnt alive for 20 to 30 minutes. Jean later admits he knew this would be her punishment but seems unaffected by it much to Marguerite’s despair. Marguerite is inexcusably victim shamed by everyone she confides in, some saying she wanted to be raped and others saying she should have kept the truth to herself – issues which very sadly still exist today. Although Marguerite arguably makes the bravest decision in reporting the rape and standing by her decision despite the prospect of torture and death, it is Jean who is ultimately the hero when he defeats Jacques and is hailed by the royalty and crowds, whilst Marguerite follows on closely behind him.
Scott’s medieval drama is not afraid to show how much of a problem rape was in the medieval ages, a conversation between Jean’s mother and Marguerite reveal that Jean’s mother was raped a number of times but kept it bottled up to not give her husband any stress. It is hinted that this is likely the story of most noble women of the middle ages, whilst the peasantry got raped every time enemy soldiers entered their villages and cities.
The American Invasion: I have nothing but praise for the cast in this film. When seeing that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were going to be starring in a medieval French setting I had my doubts I am happy to admit. Damon has previously not bothered putting an accent on for historical pieces – The Great Wall (2016) but I was quickly silenced within minutes of the opening scene. Both Damon and Affleck have their accents run away from them occasionally but it does not ruin the immersion. It took me a long time to actually realise it was Affleck as he looks completely different in his role as the French count Pierre d’Alencon. They play their roles perfectly with enough grit and dirt that you would expect from a dark medieval drama. Adam Driver remains on my good list and has yet again shown his versatility as an actor, he plays his antagonist role very well and you can see right until his dying breath that he believes he did not rape Marguerite.
However, it is Jodie Comer who stole the show. It is appropriate that in a film which shows how unfair and despicable society was on the women of the middle ages, that the female lead shines the brightest among her peers. Comer is able to balance depicting a true lady from the middle ages with modern day feminism. It is not overbearing and the feminist message she displays can at times be rather subtle, but this adds to the charm of her character.
Armour matters: Finally! I have a film where medieval plate armour actually means something! Too often in these films the audience sees swords slash through armour like butter, arrows embed straight through chainmail and spears pierce a chest plate as if it were a pillow. But not in The Last Duel. The combat sequences show arrows bouncing and ricocheting off Damon’s armour and during the duel the clash of axes and swords against armour is relatively ineffective, with each opponent having to seek the others weak points in the groin, armpit, helmet visor or neck – just like they would have in real life all those years ago.
On that note the combat sequences are excellent albeit very brief. I’d rate this film highly in it’s realism. Civilians are executed, knights are quickly dismounted from their horses and the fighting inevitably comes down to men slipping around in the mud trying to stab each other through their visors. In fact the fighting is very similar to The King (2019). If you are a horse lover please watch with caution as they are slaughtered left, right and centre in this film. Would I have liked to have seen more combat? Yes. Would it have made the film better? No. It is not a medieval action film and despite my love of medieval battlefields no further combat sequences would have benefited the true message of the film.
The hidden gem of 2021: I already feel that The Last Duel will not get the credit it deserves. Many will be put off by it’s lack of action and 2 hours 33 minute run time. But for me, that hour and a half went by very quickly and you would be a fool to not watch it. I was on the edge of my seat in the final duel and genuinely did not know which way it was going to go. I felt a genuine connection with some of the characters and it’s parallels to our current society were harrowing. In a world where social injustice is often shoved down our throats in a tacky and overly obvious fashion, The Last Duel retains it’s dignity, poise and elegantly tells one of the most powerful feminist messages I’ve seen in a long time.
To watch or not to watch: Watch.
Can I stream it: Yes – Disney+
Child friendly: No.
Can I watch this with my parents: Yes.