The Last Duel review: A starry, brutal epic rises above its ridiculous hair
The Last Duel (2021 movie)
However unlucky you might have been in life, be glad you're not a lady living through the 14th century. There's not much that Jodie Comer's Marguerite de Carrouges doesn't endure in The Last Duel, a movie that is about many things — love, war, the vagaries of the medieval French legal system — but mostly, in the end, male vanity. It's also helmed by Ridley Scott, a director who knows his way around mud and blood and adrenaline, and stacked with A-list actors who have obligingly done terrible things to their hair. Are you not entertained? You will be, but queasily, maybe: Duel is entirely, often sensationally watchable without ever quite justifying why it needs to remind us what the world has done to women for centuries. (Or how it chooses to do that by playing out an extended rape scene not once but twice.)
It begins, like so many cautionary tales do, at the end: With two noblemen, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) preparing to fight to the death for Marguerite's honor. She's adamant that Le Gris took her against her will; he's adamant he never touched her. Jean is ostensibly there to defend his wife, but he and Jacques have a long history — which the movie soon unspools by retelling the story through several viewpoints, Rashomon style. First and perhaps least interesting is Jean's: A widowed squire with an honorable name but no money, he's a dedicated soldier of the young King Charles VI (played as a giggling, vaguely sociopathic princeling by Alex Lawther). What Jean lacks in charm and couth he makes up for on the battlefield, and his title is enough to win him the hand of Marguerite, a land-rich beauty whose father has somehow disgraced the Crown, slashing her chances of a better, wealthier match — or at least one who doesn't have a pitted scar running from his cheek to his chin line.
Jean and Jacques are actually old friends thanks to their time in the trenches together, though it's hard to see how they connect otherwise: Jean is blunt and boorish, with a tendency to take outraged offense at any perceived slight; Driver's Jacques is a dashing (pre-)Renaissance man who reads Latin and German and looks fantastic in a cape. It's clear who the king's cousin, Count Pierre d'Alencon (Ben Affleck) prefers, and his favor goes a long way. When he casually gifts a part of Marguerite's dowry to Jacques, Jean does not, unsurprisingly, take the news well. But the pair mostly manage to tamp down their animosity until the day Jacques surprises Marguerite alone at home, and the disputed incident takes place. She demands justice, though not the kind her husband has in mind; he wants to bypass judicial remedies and proceed directly to a duel.
As Jacques' and then finally Marguerite's version of events play out, some fuller picture of the truth, however subjective that may be, begins to coalesce. Damon and Affleck cowrote the screenplay with writer-director Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said, Friends with Money), which was probably wise; a story so centered on sexual assault without a woman's voice in the script would feel frankly gross in the year of our Lord 2021. It's impossible to tell of course exactly what each one's contribution was, though on screen at least, it's Affleck who gets to have the most fun: His debaucherous Count — a breezy libertine in gold brocade and fluffed blond bangs — lifts the movie every time he's in the frame. Damon happily forfeits his likability for the sour, spluttering Jean, and Driver, a brooding Byronic stomper, neatly toes the line between charlatan and hero.
Scott manages to fill in the finer brushstrokes of all those characters and still fit the kind of bravura action set pieces he's known for; the fight scenes are breathlessly, bone-crunchingly brutal. The film also feels like something vanishingly rare these days: a big-screen drama with budget and scope, richly told for grown adults. (That the accents veer freely from flutey Shakespearean British to flat California standard is somehow not nearly as distracting as it should be — or far less, at least, than Damon's honey-badger mullet). But the movie (in theaters Oct. 15) wouldn't be what it is without Comer: the Emmy-winning Killing Eve actress takes what could have been a bland damsel role and makes her furiously, incandescently real. Rape back then, tellingly, was considered not a sexual offense against the victim but a property crime done to her husband. "There is no right," one character admonishes early on, "only the power of men." Duel is a sprawling, lavish testament to that, and all the things done in the name of ego, king, and country. But it's a woman who brings it home. Grade: B+