Action Drama

Review: ‘The Last Duel’ is an Epic Historical Drama About Knights, Honor and Patriarchal Oppression

October 15, 2021Ben MK

When you think of movies that take place during medieval times, you may picture sword battles fought on horseback or tales about duelling knights and damsels in distress. What you might not imagine is a story about sexual assault that also happens to star two actors born and raised in Boston. But being the director of such period epics as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, Ridley Scott still manages to make his return to the genre just as dramatic and thrilling as his previous outings — albeit with the addition of a timely and at times heavy-handed commentary about women's rights and rape culture.

Set in late 14th-century France, the film chronicles the relationship between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), two noblemen whose friendship is torn apart by pride and jealousy, after fate takes their fortunes in opposite directions. It's a falling out that takes some 16 years to unfold, but which is accelerated by the favoritism shown by their overlord, Count Pierre d'Alençon (Ben Affleck), to Jacques, as well as by Jean's marriage to Marguerite D'Thibouville (Jodie Comer), the daughter of a lord considered to be a traitor to the nation. However, it's the allegations of rape levelled against Jacques by Marguerite that proves to be the final nail in the coffin — allegations that King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) decrees to be settled by a duel to the death.

What follows is a Rashomon-style tale in which Scott and his screenwriters (Damon, Affleck and Nicole Holofcener) recount the events leading up to the titular duel from three perspectives. From Jean's point of view, he's the hero of the story — a brave warrior who saved his former friend in battle and who employed the same sense of honor to fighting the wrongs done against him, including the rape of his wife. From Jacques' point of view, Jean is the opposite — a foolhardy and ill-tempered brute who brought many of his misfortunes onto himself — and his wife's accusations of rape are nothing but lies. From Marguerite's viewpoint, however, neither man is as upstanding as he thinks. Yet, despite her sincere and emotional testimony about what happened to her one fateful day when she was left alone to fend for herself, it seems that no one — not even her closest female friend — believes her.

A historical drama told through a very modern lens, The Last Duel wastes no opportunity in highlighting how egregiously and unfairly women of the time were treated, and how many of those same sexist and chauvinistic attitudes still persist today, especially when it comes to how survivors of sexual assault are often pressured and shamed into staying silent. For all its good intentions, though, audiences might find the result to be a bit too on-the-nose with its #MeToo messaging. And when all is said and done, it's this overzealous approach the movie takes to reinforcing its primary themes that might unfortunately push some viewers away.

That said, there's still plenty to admire about the film, not the least of which is the way it immerses moviegoers in the era with its exemplary production and costume design, the stunning cinematography by Scott's frequent collaborator, Dariusz Wolski, and the career-best performances from Damon, Driver and Comer. If you're looking for a nuanced critique of systematic patriarchal oppression, however, The Last Duel is about as subtle as Maximus' speech at the Colosseum. Nonetheless, viewers will certainly be entertained.

The Last Duel releases October 15th, 2021 from 20th Century Studios. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and language. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 32 min.

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