The Last Duel

The Fox – Disney merger left several projects in limbo as Disney either axed or moved projects to streaming platforms. One surviving project is the 2021 adaptation of Eric Jager’s The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France, named “The Last Duel,” produced and directed by Sir Ridley Scott.

The adaptation, written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, who plays Count Pierre d’Alençon, and Matt Damon, Jean de Carrouges, is told in three different parts. Set in France, 1386, Scott recalls his 1978 film, “The Duellists,” “The Last Duel” opens as two men duel each other for the honor of a lady, Marguerite de Carrouges, played by Jodie Comer.

The film steps back from that opening sequence to tell the story of how Damon’s Jean de Carrouges’ wartime efforts earn him a consistent displeasure with Affleck’s d’Alençon. At the same time, his friendship with the dashing and cunning Jacques Le Gris, played by Adam Driver, deepens.

Scott’s eye for detail, a hallmark of his more epic films such as “Gladiator,” is on full display in “The Last Duel” and as de Carrouges’ downfall starts at the hands of d’Alençon, Le Gris steps in to increase his power.

Damon, who has had a busy year in 2021 with “Stillwater,” and now this film, with his war-torn face, is a demanding and petulant man who understands the power he could wield if only certain people weren’t in his way. He has common sense and loyalty. Even though the magnetism of his eyes is present, they are not front and center, nearly becoming an oaf as he seeks to determine what undermines his ascent.  He and Comer do not have a chemistry on screen; instead, they are distant from one another as husband and wife, the questionable rape at the center of their distant relations.

Affleck has a small yet significant role with his platinum blonde, short-cropped haircut (he is nearly unrecognizable), and vivacious personality. If anything, his d’Alençon could be equated to a court jester, using his power to thrive on the favors of others, lavishing rewards on those who serve his wills whilst mocking those who don’t

Driver, whose dramatic flair has soared in 2021 with “Annette,” broods and plots his way through his plight, bottom-feeding off of the success of others. As Le Gris, his is a cunning arc, offering what felt like a take on Cyrano de Bergerac.

“The Last Duel” uses its themes of rape and incest, the various reactions and points of view on the actual act to tell its story. Jean de Carriouges rejects the notion, Jacques Le Gris denies the charges. Marguerite defends it, at significant risk to her person, as it was not discussed in 1300’s France, something that Disney probably objected to when the merger was completed but moved forward with the project under the 20th Century film label, in desperate need of adult fare. The story and Scott’s direction handle this affair as delicately as they could, both from a 1300’s perspective as well as the vantage point of the modern moviegoing audience.

The technical aspects of “The Last Duel” align with Scott’s previous work, notably Dariusz Wolski’s gorgeous cinematography, Claire Simpson’s tight editing (even for a 152-minute movie, natch “No Time to Die”), and Harry Gregson-Williams’ lush score. Wolski shoots through fog-filled battlefields and dankly lit castles while Gregson-Williams adds an emotional undercurrent to the unfolding drama.

While the contentious event drives the character’s motivations, something Affleck and Damon are very good at, the duel draws our attention, and Scott does not disappoint.

This may very well be a bold prediction; however, it would be a shock “The Last Duel” isn’t nominated for Best Picture, and Wolski isn’t nominated for Best Cinematography. Adam Driver offers the most profound performances, and a Best Supporting Actor nomination is not outside the realm of possibility. Curiosity lurks for his performance in Scott’s upcoming “House of Gucci.”

Sir Ridley Scott brings everything he has to bear and then some, and “The Last Duel” is sure to intrigue, if not be discussed in the coming years.