Venice 2021: Ridley Scott's 'The Last Duel' is a Stirring Medieval Epic
by Alex Billington
September 12, 2021
"I will not be silent!" When I sat down to watch Ridley Scott's movie The Last Duel, I was not expecting a two and a half hour sprawling medieval epic with massive battles and intimate drama aplenty. For whatever careless reason, I was initially expecting a small scale drama about men fighting over a woman, culminating in an entertaining duel between two cocky bastards. While there certainly is an entertaining duel, this film is anything but small scale. The Last Duel is one of two new Ridley Scott-directed movies releasing in 2021, the other being House of Gucci, and it showed up at the 2021 Venice Film Festival as a world premiere at the very end of the fest as an out-of-competition screening. It's not really a festival film, but it still entertained everyone anyway. Especially with a runtime of 152 minutes, massive medieval action set pieces galore, and a knights-in-full-armor duel unlike any shown on screen before. Will there be divisive reactions? Most likely… Will there be plenty to debate and argue about? Definitely. But is it at least a good movie? Yes, it certainly is.
The Last Duel is a based-on-a-true-story tale of two men fighting over an accusation of rape. Based upon the book "The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France" from Eric Jager, it's adapted for the screen by fellow filmmaker Nicole Holofcener sharing a writing credit with actors Ben Affleck & Matt Damon. All of what it shows apparently really did happen. Matt Damon also co-stars in the film as Jean de Carrouges, a medieval French knight who fights for the crown whenever necessary, and returns home to relax for mere days before leaving on more missions. Adam Driver plays Jacques LeGris, a suave, overly-confident, jackass French squire, who gets into trouble when he's accused of raping Jean de Carrouges' wife, Marguerite. Jodie Comer co-stars as Marguerite, the daughter of a French lord who owns land in Normandy. She is married to Jean and is loyal to him, but catches the eye of Jacques. And the rest is history. The only way they can resolve this, since the judicial system is ruled by the church and they don't give a shit about much, is by fighting in a grimy duel-to-the-death arranged by the arrogant King Charles VI.
As ridiculous as this sounds, it is a true story and is being told in a way that connects with the #MeToo era and how easy is to only listen to men's stories. Ridley Scott goes all-in recreating this dirty, sleazy medieval era, with grand & glorious, historically-accurate set design reminiscent of Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven. The movie is as long as it is because it's split into three chapters, borrowing from Rashomon to show us the story from Jean's perspective, Jacques' perspective, and finally Marguerite's perspective, aptly identified as "the truth" (above all), before ending with the titular duel. He also goes all-in making this a very R-rated medieval tale of asshole men and rape. The fights are bloody and brutal, as is the duel. Before we even get to anything with Marguerite, the first half of the movie takes us through numerous battles led by de Carrouges – successes and failures. It's the kind of movie I am glad I watched but don't think I'll ever want to watch again. There's only so much medieval violence I can take before I wonder why I'm entertained watching men slash and bash other men all so they can gain more land and collect taxes from all the residents of said land.
After all of the battles are over, though, is when The Last Duel really gets good. The third chapter rules (it finally gets to make the point it's been trying to make all along), though the rest is typical Ridley Scott action cinema. It's here where the storytelling hones in on the real truth of this story, and what is actually being said about men and women. And it finally gives us a cathartic "hell yes" moment that is becoming more and more necessary when there is so rarely any actual justice these days. Matt Damon is the best part about the entire movie, I must say, along with Jodie Comer who holds her own amidst a battlefield full of shitty men. Adam Driver seems miscast (he's just too lovable to be such an asshole in my opinion) and Ben Affleck is only there to fill a role as another asshole. Watching this movie I kept thinking the filmmaking is goddamn impressive, but then I reminded myself, oh right, this is Ridley Scott he definitely knows what he's doing. I don't even know how he made this final duel so real. But it's exactly what he does best and it rocks to watch.
This is probably going to sound lame, but I used to go to the Renaissance Fair as a kid and watch them do the fake "joust" with horses. I always thought it was fun. Overall it's rather harmless, it's just a performance and no one actually gets hurt, and it's not meant to be a serious historical recreation despite my adolescent brain thinking that's what it was like to duel. In Scott's The Last Duel, the final duel is the actual full-on medieval "holy shit" compelling fight you'd expect between two men battling to the death. It is INTENSE - like, hold-your-breath, cower-in-fear until it's all over, intense. I'm not entirely sure how they pulled it off. The big fights in Gladiator are glorious, but with 20 years of experience since making that, it seems Ridley Scott is getting even better at making action completely believable in a movie. Even if the first half of the movie isn't anything I want to rewatch, this final chapter and duel is something I do want to revisit. Just for that awe-inspiring thrilling feeling all over again. Let them fight…! Just please don't let the asshole men win.