The Last Duel opens with two men and a woman preparing for the titular duel. As the men are fitted with armor and mount their horses, the woman is dressed in a somber black outfit. All three omit a nervous tension and a sense of something ominous and horrible to come lingers. Just as the duel starts and the men begin to joust, the film looks back to explain the events that led these three people to this fateful day.
Review: ‘The Last Duel’ is a Stirring Medieval Tale of an Attempt to Find Justice
This historical drama is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Eric Jager which tells the story of the last judicial duel fought in France in the year 1386. It’s the first of two films directed by Ridley Scott (and starring Adam Driver) to be released this year, with House of Gucci to follow in November. And yet, this is the film that seems more aligned with Scott’s previous filmography as he returns to epic battles and muddied men.
The title card at the beginning of the film states that it is “based on true events” and the history behind it is as follows. In December 1386, the last judicial duel was fought between the knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). Notable not only for being the last judicial duel (a very detailed process that involved the King and the French parlement), it was fought between two men who had once been close friends. But while Le Gris had found success and favor serving Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), Carrouges had been isolated from his superior by his brash attitude and his losses fighting the English abroad.
Perhaps his marriage to the daughter of a known traitor to the crown, Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), had not helped matters. Tensions between the two men came to a head when Carrouges formally challenged Le Gris to a duel for raping his wife while he was gone from his home. It was not an unheard of circumstance, but still rare for a woman to seek justice for assault in this period. It was considered not a crime to her, but a property crime against her husband, and Carrouges felt compelled to seek vengeance against his former friend.
Since 1386, both historians and people have debated whether or not Le Gris was guilty of the crime that Carrouges and Marguerite accused him of. In his book, Jager assumes that Marguerite was telling the truth and thankfully the film takes the same approach. When this project was originally announced, I was concerned that it might cast some doubt on Le Gris’s guilt and was relieved to see that it stands firmly with Marguerite in her accusations.
In fact, allowing for certain cinematic liberties, the film follows the book fairly closely and even includes some small details, like Le Gris refusing to sort out the matter in the clerical courts. It makes the most changes related to the character of Marguerite, perhaps because of the lack of records about her (like most women of the time) and Pierre, who is built into more of a comic character.
The smartest thing that Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon did in writing the screenplay was to divide the film into three chapters following that first introduction. Each chapter presents “the truth according to” one of the three lead characters: Jean de Carrouges, Jacques Le Gris, and Marguerite. However, it leaves us with little doubt that the third chapter is the actual truth. This means that we see some scenes multiple times, but from a different perspective. It’s a fascinating way to reflect on the fact that in a trial (or simply in everyday life), each person has a slightly altered experience and memory of events.
It does feel necessary to issue some trigger warnings for this film as one of those repeated scenes is the one in which Le Gris assaults Marguerite. These scenes are somewhat extended and while they don’t contain graphic nudity (though other scenes in the film do), they are intense. There are also other scenes of dubious consent and violence pertaining to horses that some viewers might find disturbing.
Damon and Affleck, who are both producers and the driving creative forces behind The Last Duel, have proven once again that they know how best to utilize themselves as actors. Damon is, I’m sorry to say, an actor who never seems to fit in a period film. There’s something about him that is unmistakably modern and that is certainly true in his portrayal of Carrouges particularly when next to actors like Driver, Comer, and Harriet Walter (who portrays his mother), who blend seamlessly into the time period.
However, it’s a solid performance from Damon as a man who feels that he has been looked over and wronged. There’s an anger that is easy to flare in Carrouges and a lack of sophistication; it’s clear that this is a man who feels more comfortable on a battlefield than at a dinner table.
Meanwhile, Affleck seems to be having the time of his life as the philandering drunken count. The performance is almost camp and provides humor in a film that desperately needs it at times, while also helping show the differences between his close friend Le Gris and the more stern and prudish Carrouges. The hair and makeup on Damon isn’t great, but Affleck’s somewhat outlandish hair helps him disappear into his character.
But it’s Driver and Comer who give the strongest performances of the film. Driver plays Le Gris excellently, with his large frame and commanding presence being a perfect fit for the character. He is sinister, while also never losing the charm that led him to be Count Pierre’s right-hand man and a well-regarded man of the court.
Meanwhile, Comer is able to portray both Marguerite’s timidity in the early days of her marriage and her deep pain during her assault and the following trial and duel. She brings forth a woman who is fiercely strong, but also deeply troubled by what has occurred to her both in her marriage and with Le Gris. When she is moved to tears, it is difficult not to cry with her.
The rest of the supporting cast also give great performances. Walter is great as Marguerite’s cruel mother-in-law who believes her son can do no wrong. Alex Lawthor is perfect as the young and somewhat ridiculous King Charles V, who is overwhelmingly amused by the duel. Serena Kennedy is excellent as the young Queen as her silently horrified reactions to Marguerite’s questioning during the trial preceding the duel remind us that the fourteenth century was a difficult time for women regardless of their rank.
Indeed, the film does an excellent job of walking the line between showing the ways in which many issues that women face today are ones that women have faced for centuries and not attempting to modernize a historical event. We see the ways in which Marguerite and her skills at running an estate are held back by her husband and the price that women must pay for speaking up against their abusers. And yet, those calling the film a “Me Too medieval epic” are oversimplifying things. This is, in many ways, not an empowering story (and certainly not one to be conflated with a very specific modern movement), but one of how much this woman must risk in order to seek justice against a man who raped her.
The Last Duel is not a perfect film. It runs a bit long and there’s a moment of foreshadowing using horses that’s annoyingly obvious and unnecessary. However, it’s leagues better than I could have expected when the project was first announced. The costumes, production design, battle sequences, and cinematography are all excellent, in addition to the aforementioned screenplay and performances.
While I’m still not convinced that this is a story that needed to be told on film, Scott, Damon, Affleck, and Holofcener did an excellent job telling Marguerite’s story. The Last Duel is both an exciting film of swords and battles and a moving portrait of a woman’s attempt to find justice.
The Last Duel is in theaters this Friday. Get your tickets today.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.