We last got a Ridley Scott film four years ago – two of them in fact, in the forms of Alien Covenant and All the Money in the World, and now, in 2021, he’s set to repeat his 2017 double-up (thanks mostly to COVID delays). The first of his two films – The Last Duel – may have less awards buzz than its compatriot House of Gucci, but is, to my mind at least, the far more appealing prospect, bringing Scott back to the mud and blood of the medieval era for a thrilling and funny Rashomon-style take on France’s last ever trial by combat.
It’s 1386, and two knights – the experienced but unpopular Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and the intelligent court favourite Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, who will also be seen in Gucci) – are about to square off in a one-on-one duel to the death. Precisely why this is happening is explained in three competing flashbacks with differing perspectives, all revolving the same event; the rape of Carrouge’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) by Le Gris. In an inspired move, each point of view has a different writer, bringing fresh tones each time that Scott manages to weave together in a deeply satisfying and entertaining way.
First up is Carrouges’s account of events, written by Damon, then Le Gris’s, written by Ben Affleck (who also pops up as a party-boy regional lord and just has an absolute blast), and finally Marguerite’s, which is presented as the truest recollection and is brought to life by Nicole Holofcener. Each is gripping in its own right, but of course work best when playing off against each other. Carrouges’s segment, though full of fantastically well-marshalled battle scenes, can come across as a little dry until we see Carrouges himself through the eyes of Marguerite and Le Gris and come to understand him as a grumbling oaf, unable to see past his own vanity or his self-perception as the righteous hero.
No matter who is ‘narrating’ though, Scott and the writing team make sure the film itself is, at all times, on Marguerite’s side. Comer’s performance is charming and poignant, and in her realisation that the world would go easier on her if she just shut up and pretended the rape never happened, Holofcener’s story strand makes a punchy point about just how little progress we’ve made in terms of how we treat victims of sexual violence. To get to this point though, you do have to watch the central rape twice, and it is deeply upsetting both times, Le Gris giggling like a frat boy before using his massive physical heft to render Marguerite helpless.
The Last Duel runs at a hefty 150-odd minutes, but the neat separations in the story keep things moving at a hectic pace, and it’s simply a pleasure to be back in Scott-made medieval world. From epic sets to crunching action, no one does the swords-and-shields era like Ridley, a fact most clear in the climactic duel itself. It’s visceral, pulse-pounding stuff as steel clangs and sprays of filth and gore cover the combatants. You feel the weight of the armour and the fear and exhaustion in each swing of an axe or sword – it’s exactly what you want when you walk into a Ridley Scott 14th Century epic.