Despite winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for their first team-up, The Last Duel is only the second Ben Affleck and Matt Damon script to reach the big screen. In tandem with Acadamy Award nominee Nicole Holofcener, the trio have written an intelligent, thought provoking, captivating film that, despite its period setting, manages to be frighteningly timeless. Your average swords-and-shields fare this isn’t, as the intensity of battle plays largely second fiddle to the spoken word, though those seeking bloodshed will certainly leave satisfied.
Set in the latter quarter of the 14th century, The Last Duel is the story of France’s last trial by combat. At its heart sees Jean de Carrouge (Damon), Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), and most crucially, Lady Marguerite de Carrouge (Jodie Comer) at the centre of a rape case, in which Marguerite has accused le Gris of raping her while Jean was away on business. Impressively told in three chapters, focusing on each of our lead characters’ respective viewpoints of the event, The Last Duel is a Rashomon (or Vantage Point, for the cultured among us) inspired journey in which the audience plays judge and jury over its court case.
Upon its initial announcement, The Last Duel was met with a decidedly negative response. A story about sexual assault against a woman written and directed by men is sure to set alarm bells ringing, but to diminish the film on those grounds alone is doing a disservice to the hard work put in behind the scenes by Affleck, Damon, Holofcener, and director Ridley Scott. Affleck approached Holofcener to write the all-important third chapter of the story, the chapter told from the perspective of Lady Marguerite, and in so doing, elevates The Last Duel even further beyond the already lofty achievements of its first two acts.
The Last Duel lives and dies by its screenplay. The swords-and-shields décor is a mere background to the real story as it approaches it from three different angles; the first from the husband of the victim, the second from the accused, and the third from the victim herself, an approach which allows the film to tackle the topic with a thoughtful, measured approach. Each of its chapters allows Damon, Driver, and Comer to adjust their performances to account for the relevant perspectives. The men, for instance, see themselves as the heroes of their story; Jean is the hero for standing up to protect his wife and sacrifice his life for her, while Jacques is the hero in his version as he was acting out of love. Their respective adoration of Marguerite shifts between the chapters, and Comer plays the subtle differences in the men’s interpretations of her actions flawlessly. A complete infatuation with Jean from his perspective, and a woman enamoured by his enchanting good looks in Jacques’, Affleck, Damon, and Holofcener’s script allows each of their characters portray how they felt they acted. Unreliable narrators are everywhere within the castle walls in a script that perfectly balances effective storytelling with careful character studies. Throwaway lines in one chapter are shown in a new light in another, and its most damning, timeless indictments of the judicial process – “there is no right, only the power of men” says Jean de Carrouges’ mother, Nicole (Harriet Walter) – are given the necessary weight to leave the audience gasping in disbelief.
The task presented to Damon, Driver, and Comer is no easy feat, though it should not come as a surprise that all three performances should earn never-ending acclaim as we begin the steady ascent to awards season. Damon and Driver are in complete control of their characters in their own stories. Damon’s Jean sees himself as the battle-hardened veteran knight, one responsible for saving as many lives as he has slain, as his chapter is far more devoted to accentuating his prowess on the battlefield than anything else, a well-established trait as we move nearer its vicious conclusion. Driver’s Jacques, meanwhile, may be adept with a sword but is far more at home scheming behind the scenes, the Tyrion Lannister to a blond goateed Joffrey Baratheon, the cruel and corrupt Count Pierre d’Alençon played by Ben Affleck. Jacques appears to be always one-step ahead, carefully choosing his words so as to never be trapped, and using his charm, wit, and intelligence to rise to the top, earning the Count’s clout as much as Jean concedes it. It’s impossible to see anyone else in the role of Jacques here, his disarmingly attractive, dominating nature is enough to put the local wives on notice. More impressive, though, are their respective performances when shown from the other’s perspective. Jean’s battling personality appears merely an angry façade when shown from Jacques’ perspective, while Jacques’ charm appears far more sinister seen through Jean’s eyes. The two men are at odds with one another throughout, their supposed mutual respect purely smoke and mirrors for their true opinions kept behind closed doors.
Jodie Comer, though, is the heart and soul of The Last Duel. Comer’s Marguerite is something of a bit part through Jean and Jacques’ retellings, a commentary on the importance she plays in the men’s thoughts, a mere accessory to their lives than a noteworthy element. Marguerite is Jean’s adoring wife in his chapter, reacting fondly to moments of kindness from her husband, while Jacques sees Marguerite as a prize to be won, playing a game with him rather than objecting to his advances. Comer’s performance is a patient one, the power of it gains even more having sat through her almost background work until that point as she’s finally unleashed in her chapter. The quiet observations come screaming out of her as she faces accusations of being a harlot or simply faking her horrid story, begging for someone to simply listen to her. As The Last Duel reaches its conclusion, with all its truths laid bare, Comer ascends to another level entirely, frustrations at her being unable to bear a child for Jean, her successes at maintaining the de Carrouges business left unappreciated, and the anger she feels at the judicial system for allowing men to be judged by God rather than truth come to the fore thanks to her eye-opening, devastatingly brilliant performance.
Beyond the terrific script and its sensational performances, The Last Duel still manages to find time to satisfy those seeking bloodshed. Across its somewhat chaotic opening, several short battle sequences serve to build character while being mightily impressive to behold, the ringing of sword clashes, muddy squelches on sodden fields, and the screams in agony of fallen soldiers create such an intense atmosphere for the viewer that you’re transfixed throughout. War may play second fiddle for much of The Last Duel, but the action on show is incredibly put together, none more so than the trial by combat that concludes the film. There’s a level of utter brutality to the two men both trying to end the life of their opponent while battling for their own survival that leaves an astonishing impression, something you’d expect from Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator. It appears so well choreographed to appear exhausting and challenging, as one would expect swinging heavy swords while clad in heavy duty armour to be, but the weight of the fight between Jean and Jacques comes as a genuine cathartic release following 2 hours of intense dialogue and miraculous performances. All the best cinematic fights are those where its winner is impossible to predict, The Last Duel is no different. After spending so much time building up to its title fight and for the fight to deliver as satisfyingly as it did, suffice it to say The Last Duel sticks the landing.
The Last Duel had such a tricky task on its hands, given its difficult subject matter and the heavy burden on the shoulders of its writers and performers, but the film does a remarkable job to inform, challenge, and entertain its audience across its hefty two and a half hours. Damon and Driver’s performances are fantastic, but Comer is what takes this film to the lofty heights it manages to reach. A brutal, harrowing, intriguing, stunningly well-made film that will linger in your thoughts for quite some time.
The Last Duel is available in cinemas now.