Ridley Scott is one of the best directors you can have at the helm of a historical action thriller, though he is a bit shakier when it comes to a Middle Ages #MeToo tale.
The Last Duel is an ambitious medieval epic that’s as intimate as it is sprawling, a well-acted 14th-century saga about two frenemy knights (played by Matt Damon and Adam Driver), one brave wife (Jodie Comer) and a sexual assault charge told Rashomon style through various perspectives.
It’s also a showcase for Comer (Killing Eve), though by the time her Lady Marguerite has the chance to tell her side of a sordid story, it’s hard to bring the focus back from two not-very-chivalrous unreliable narrators trying to out-macho one another.
The film begins with the so-called truth of what led to a real-life 1386 duel to the death, first according to French knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon), then that of squire Jacque Le Gris (Driver) before a closing chapter from the viewpoint of Marguerite — written respectively by co-screenwriters Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener.
The Last Duel throws it all back to 1360, when Jean and Jacques fought side by side against England. Jean is a scarred, prideful and decorated soldier of Normandy that the local lord, Count Pierre d’Alencon (Affleck), cousin of King Charles VI (Alex Lawther), finds a detestable bore — the clever and arrogant Jacques is much more his type of guy.
The count’s favouritism toward Jacques, as well as a property lawsuit, drives a wedge between the two friends. Jean marries the educated and lovely Marguerite, whose father (Nathaniel Parker) is labelled a traitor, and soon after Jean and Jacques try to mend fences.
That is, until Jean returns home from a stint in battle and Marguerite accuses Jacques of raping her in his absence, though the squire denies any wrongdoing.
Incensed more because of his ego than his wife’s trauma, Jean first takes the matter locally to Pierre and then on to the king, who agrees to a trial by combat where God will determine who’s telling the truth.
With its storytelling structure, The Last Duel is a splendid character study of toxic masculinity and self-conceit. The way Jean sees the world, everybody tries to keep this good warrior down but at least his beloved wife is loyal to him. And in Jacques’ view, though his boorish friend Jean is a guy worth respect, because Marguerite smiled at him a couple of times he should take her for his own.
However, because we spend so much time getting into these two narcissistic men’s minds, when we finally get Marguerite’s clear-eyed take of the situation and all the players, it’s somewhat too little too late.
At least The Last Duel does give Comer a chance to shine, first as versions of Marguerite as the two men see her and then fully in her own story. Marguerite puts her life on the line to tell the truth about what’s happened to her — this was a time when rape was considered a property crime rather than a personal offence, as men were deemed owners of their wives — and while the narrative overall tries but fails to capture a modern relevance, Comer gives a great and multilayered turn.
Damon and Driver are both solid as pals-turned-foils, Affleck steals the movie halfway through as the party-hearty Pierre (he seems to have written the most entertaining character in the movie for himself, but we’ll allow it), and Lawther is twitchy and watchable as the mercurial teen king.
The Last Duel has mixed results as a socially conscious drama, but as a hardcore period action film, it’s brutally effective on the level of Scott’s Gladiator. The battle scenes are vicious but pale in comparison to the central final duel, a superbly tense and bone-breaking affair that caps the movie even as it sidelines Marguerite as the story’s real hero.
— USA Today