Directed by Ridley Scott, THE LAST DUEL (2021) allows two Medieval nobles to tell the story of why they fought in France’s last sanctioned duel, while also including the perspective of the woman whose honor and life they contested. The result is a highly engaging, subtly provocative, and complex period drama. I liked this one a lot.
The film is instantly intriguing, as it is based on a nonfiction book of the same title, which interpreted the woman as the true victim in a story that had throughout history always been considered really about the men involved. In the story, two squires, longtime friends, find their fortunes take different directions after the Battle of Limoges. De Carrouges (Matt Damon), a gruff, simple, and somewhat brutish soldier, marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Part of his dowry is given not to him but already belongs to his friend Le Gris (Adam Driver), who has worked his way into the favor of their decadent lord Count Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck being wonderfully smarmy). Le Gris falls for Marguerite, which leads to an encounter that will lead her to accuse him of a crime and De Carrouges challenging him to a duel. As the truth cannot be known, the issue will be decided by combat, with God surely granting the victor favor.
In THE LAST DUEL, we get this story essentially told three times, with the same events told as each of the three players sees it. By the end, we get the truth. This creates a sense of repetitiveness in a long film, but I didn’t mind it. I enjoyed seeing the characters morph based on their own perception and how others see them. Suffice to say how these men see themselves, particularly in relation to Marguerite, is not who they really are.
The story of the men is historical and as a result is a bit convoluted, though I didn’t mind that either. Their friendship breaking over jealousy and resentment has real reasons going back years, and we see these roots exposed. Marguerite’s story, however, is relatively simple. She married without having a choice, and she is expected to obey her husband and produce an heir. When her husband is away at the wars, she runs her estate, flourishing as for a time she gets to enjoy real choices. We learn that her accusation and the resulting duel have very real consequences for her.
Thematically, the story has a fairly obvious Me Too flavor. Some critics apparently wanted that to be more out front, but I like how the film trusted me to get it. I enjoyed seeing a contemporary issue explored in a historical sense, highly contextualized. Marguerite and the two men are obviously the product of their times, and the system they are a part of is how the world worked at the time, heavily influenced by money and property and the power it delivered. By the end, it’s obvious Marguerite wants to be seen as a person and not property.
The only other thing I’ll add is the world building is excellent, offering a medieval world that is bigger than the characters and looks lived in, and the duel itself delivers terrific action, a desperate and savage fight for honor to the death.
Overall, I enjoyed this one quite a bit as a gritty and engaging period drama.