‘The Last Duel’ tells a more challenging story than advertised

Don’t be fooled by the trailers positioning director Ridley Scott’s latest as a battle epic

Brad Keefe
"The Last Duel"

Sometimes the marketing of a movie is such a misdirect that one has to wonder what happens when the audience doesn’t get the film it was sold.

In the case of “The Last Duel,” I think the actual movie is better and more interesting than what is being vaguely marketed as a historical battle epic.

With scenes of swords and clashes, trailers for the latest from director Ridley Scott seem to set up something akin to his earlier “Gladiator,” but underneath is a historical critique on misogyny that intentionally feels very modern. Also not revealed is the film’s narrative device, which is both vital to the story and one that may not click with everyone.

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Set in the Hundred Years’ War during the late Middle Ages and based on actual events, the movie tells the story of the last “trial by combat” in France. It opens in the runup to the duel between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques LeGris (Adam Driver), then moves back in time to share the events that lead to that moment.

We see the pair as friends fighting a bloody and violent battle — the sort of impressive, big-budget spectacle that’s expected from the advertisements. But then a rift comes between the two, first in dealings with the local politics of medieval France.

De Carrouges eventually meets and marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer), and ultimately we learn the reason for the duel: LeGris is accused by de Carrouges of raping his wife.

That sexual assault is a central theme to the film, and audiences should be aware of the subject matter, along with the fact that there are onscreen depictions of the act that are rightly difficult to watch. I struggle with the necessity of the onscreen depictions of the act, and with its repetition, but it is key that that is not left a gray area to the audience.

The film unfolds in three acts, its structure helping it provoke thought. Each act is told from the perspective of one of the three central characters, often with overlapping events depicted through different lenses.

While the first two acts are interesting in the shifting perspectives of “main character” syndrome — the way we view our own actions vs. the perception of others — it’s the third act from Marguerite’s perspective that makes “The Last Duel” land.

It’s an obvious parallel to modern society and the way women are treated following allegations of sexual assault, and it hits home. 

Damon and Ben Affleck (who also has a supporting role) reteamed for their first shared screenplay in decades, but more notable is that they were joined by writer and director Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”). Holofcener is known for writing thoughtful comedies, not sword fights, but this film would have been a grave misstep without her perspective.

Scott paces the unfolding story well, but the two-and-a-half-hour film does suffer from bloat, mostly in the wartime scenes.

Ultimately it’s a solid film, but not as important as the discussions it sparks.

“The Last Duel”

Now playing in theaters

3 stars out of 5