The Last Duel
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon
Starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
Old fashioned films with swords and knights and warriors, featuring smart and involving screenplays, wrapped up in an artfully designed package are mostly a thing of the past. Almost completely gone are the days when the big studios would throw millions of dollars and major advertising funds at historical epics. It is the rare filmmaker of today who can command the trust of the studio heads to finance a film such as this that might be a gamble at the box office.
As today’s big budget films rely too heavily on CGI and fail to have dramatic bite, it is Ridley Scott who continues to create stunning visual motifs to tell serious stories full of great characters and, in his historical films, creative action set pieces.
Scott proves once again that he is one of Cinema’s giants with “The Last Duel”.
Written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, this is “Rashomon” set during the Hundred Years War.
In 14th-century France, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, more interesting than he has been in years!) and Jacques Le Gris (another great turn from Adam Driver) are soldiers and friends. Each man a leader. Each destined for greatness in the service of their king.
Le Gris falls under the spell of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck making a memorable mark out of a showy role). The count is a man of no morality. He spends his days bored with his privilege (which he constantly abuses) and his nights having orgies with women while he orders his pregnant wife to bed early. Affleck made his part work. It is written as the type of character who could be overplayed but the actor keeps it grounded and believable. It is a wonderful performance from an actor who is smarter than many of the films he chooses.
Carrouges mismanages his estate and is drowning in debt. When he marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer giving the performance of the film), things go bad. Her father is a former traitor who is trying to make good but is forced to give away some of the land that was promised to Carrouges and Marguerite to clear his debt and his name.
It is d’Alençon who takes the land and gifts it to Jacques Le Gris. Incensed, Carrouges sues to get it back, as it was to be included in his wife’s dowry.
The wedge between the two former friends is driven in.
After a half-hearted attempt at a truce between the two men, Lady Marguerite accuses Le Gris of rape. He denies it.
For a woman to accuse a man in good standing of such a thing put her life at stake in those times, and what Marguerite soon comes to realize is how people (including her own husband) are more concerned with how this speaks to the honor of the men rather than the horrific crime perpetrated on the woman.
For many wrong and selfish reasons, Carrouges challenges his old companion to a duel to the death.
In adapting Eric Jager’s 2004 book, this is the first time Damon and Affleck have come together to write a film. In a seriously smart choice, filmmaker Nicole Holofcener was brought on to give a female perspective and to enhance the dialogue and actions of Lady Marguerite.
Their screenplay breaks up the story into three chapters. We see actions play out differently through the eyes of the two former friends and the woman in the middle. Each chapter is “the truth according to…” Do we ever get to the full truth of what happened? The film will not tell us, and we are left to make up our own minds. The ambiguity is smart. No one knows the truth. No one shall ever know. Or does the film hint at who to believe? Pay attention to which title card the words “the truth” stay up longer on.
Matt Damon has been doing good work but, over the last decade or more, has been skating on his “Matt Damon” personality. For a while, we either get happy and winning Matt Damon or angry and sad Matt Damon. This does not mean he has been giving bad performances. Of late, he has not found one to fully disappear into.
As Carrouges, Damon reminds us how great he can truly be. His performance is full of power and rage and the actor sells the somewhat too-American-phrased dialogue. It is great work.
Driver is equally as good but this is the type of role that fits him like a glove. He seems at home in a film set in the 14th century, his long hair and tall frame working well for a squire on his way to being a knight. Driver has a sinister charm as an actor and it works perfectly for his character.
Jodie Comer is powerful and moving as Lady Marguerite. In the film, she conveys fear and determination and depression as good as any actress. It is a strong performance and it grounds the cast entire.
Whether or not it was the intent of the screenwriters to mold this story into today’s era of reckonings, it certainly plays as such, sometimes to a fault.
The heaviness and importance of the story plays well enough on its own. Filmmakers do not need to insert parables regarding today’s changing times into films set that far in the past. ‘Twas ego that killed the beasts in this particular tale.
Ridley Scott is a true artist and one of the last living filmmakers who respects the art of making a film. Scott’s works are always well shot and this one is no exception.
While this is not top shelf Scott, it is a very good film and can be linked to the director’s first film, 1978’s “The Duellists”, but this one doesn’t have the artfulness of that masterfully done piece. The visual tone here is more in tune with Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”. John Mathieson shot that one. Darius Wolski lensed “The Last Duel”.
The cinematographer gets some great visuals out of the cold France winters and its beautiful countryside. As he began with “Gladiator”, there is always snow in Scott’s films, especially during battle scenes. He does not want his audience to cheer on the violence and bloodshed. The filmmaker makes it look uncomfortable and cold and dangerous. While there are only a few battles, the action set pieces are handled with the director’s expert hand.
The final duel between Damon and Driver is one of the best since Liam Neeson and Tim Roth’s brutal and draining sword fight in 1995’s “Rob Roy”. Once Damon and Driver go at it, lances and shields smash and swords and axes clash. The moment is brutal and bloody and realistic.
Harry Gregson-Williams wrote a good score but it needed to be bolder. Studios are afraid of orchestra budgets in this country and sometimes it is not the composer’s fault that scores have become pedestrian and unmemorable. Gregson-Williams does good work here, but his music needed to connect more closely to the piece than it ultimately does.
What this film gets right is its sense of place and time and the devotion to the creation of well-observed characters. This is where Ridley Scott has always excelled and is part of what makes him one of our finest auteurs.
This is a complex telling of this story and the director guides his actors and his film effortlessly, assuring that the drama and conflict of each character is understood.
A very good film, “The Last Duel” is a brutal and serious tale of vanity and greed and the destruction caused by both.
R, 153 Minutes, 20th Century Studios, Scott Free Productions, Pearl Street Films