'The Last Duel' review: Epic drama dressed up in mud, blood and mullets
Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck star in medieval tale with its eyes on today.
It wouldn't seem that 14th century France would have a whole lot in common with our modern era, but "The Last Duel" takes a hard look at contemporary sexual politics through the lens of medieval times.
That's the trick of Ridley Scott's gritty and immensely watchable swords and shields epic, which is based on a true story. It's dressed up with big battle scenes and historical context, but it's essentially a scaled down three-act play about the treatment of women 600 years ago, the treatment of women today, and the sad parallels that can be drawn between the two time periods.
Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck are the major players — "Good Will Hunting" Oscar winners Damon and Affleck wrote the screenplay, along with "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and "Enough Said" screenwriter Nicole Holofcener — and each sport appropriately boffo hairstyles for the occasion. (Damon wears a mullet that would make Bob Probert wince, Affleck models the dyed-blonde locks and chin hair of a '90s boy band member and Driver, with his wild mop of Chris Cornell hair looks like, well, Driver.)
Damon plays Jean de Carrouges, a dour but noble knight in King Charles VI's kingdom. He's married to Marguerite (Comer), a transactional relationship based on the promise of land, but a faithful relationship nonetheless. It's 1386, after all, and romance isn't exactly springing eternal.
Driver is Jacques Le Gris, a squire serving Affleck's Count Pierre d'Alençon, a drunken, philandering 14th century frat boy who is a cousin of the king. (It may or may not be historically up to snuff, but Affleck is the most fun and free he has been on screen in ages, and his performance really perks things up.)
Jacques — who has a fraught, strained relationship with Jean — has eyes for Marguerite, and when Jean is off at battle, Jacques sees his way into Marguerite's chambers and has his way with her. When she later reports to Jean she has been raped, Jean responds by having his way with her himself, and only then does he take issue with Jacques by challenging him to a duel to the death. Not for Marguerite's honor, mind you, but for his pride.
"The Last Duel" is told from three perspectives — first Jean's, then Jacques' and finally Marguerite's. The "Rashomon"-like structure is meant to give the three sides to the story, but the problem is Jacques' and Marguerite's accounts don't differ all that much from one another. Save for some slight nuance, there's no version of Jacques' story where he isn't a rapist — "of course she made the customary protest," he says in his defense, "but she is a lady!" — which significantly lessens the story's dramatic tension. (The construct also means the audience is forced to endure an unsettling rape scene not once, but twice.)
Even if the narrative sags, the performances are across-the-board stellar, and Comer is especially strong, projecting vulnerability and courage in equal measure. Scott stages huge battle sequences and builds to the climactic duel, which is all brutal, teeth-clenched, fight-to-the-death violence.
If the story focuses on the men and their collision and not the woman at its center, that's the point: women were always an afterthought, the question is whether and how much that has changed in the centuries since. Damon and Driver's characters are focused on each other, while Scott's ire is turned toward the patriarchy.
"The Last Duel" unfolds as a soap opera about power, consent, and the ridiculous notions of "science" that were considered rule in the 14th century. (In a word: yikes.) The showdown at the film's center was indeed the last legally sanctioned duel in France's history. But "The Last Duel" is just as fixed on the fight that continues today.
'The Last Duel'
Rated R: for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language
Running time: 153 minutes