“The Last Duel,” based on a true story, is set in the late 14th century and stars Jodie Comer (“Free Guy”) as Marguerite de Carrouges, Matt Damon (“Stillwater”) as her husband and knight Jean de Carrouges and Adam Driver (“Annette”) as fellow knight Jacques Le Gris. Marguerite accuses Le Gris of raping her, and thus Le Gris and Jean De Carrouges fight in the last judicial duel in medieval France. The film reunites Damon and his “Good Will Hunting” partner Ben Affleck (“Gone Girl”) as co-writers, alongside Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”). Acclaimed filmmaker Ridley Scott (“The Martian”) returns to the medieval genre to direct.
The movie opens in media res, with the duel about to play out in full force. Crucially, the opening shots are focused on Marguerite rather than either of the men fighting in the duel. This is her story, and Comer, both in this brief scene and throughout the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, is the most emotionally developed and sympathetic character.
The movie’s structure is its most compelling ingredient. It takes place over many years and is divided into three perspectives: Jean first, Le Gris second and concluding with Marguerite’s. There is some story overlap between the sections which could feel redundant, but “Rashomon”-style selective memory is used both to keep things interesting and to develop each character. The three often remember the same events very differently, with the two men often taking credit for each other’s achievements. Marguerite’s segment is the most honest, both about the events of the story and about how restrictive and unjust life for women was in medieval France.
One of the best aspects of this film is the way it builds anticipation to the looming confrontation. Scott had already mastered pacing in 1979 with his classic “Alien,” and here the long runtime feels both weighty and appropriate. By the time we return to the titular duel, the personal and emotional stakes are enormous; they perfectly match the metallic, bulky armor worn in the battle. The fight itself is heart-pounding, physically brutal and kinetic, and every sword swing and hasty dodge feels like a tactile brush with death. It’s probably the best scene.
While Damon and Driver both embody their roles skillfully, with Damon especially looking uncharacteristically burly, Jodie Comer is certainly the standout. The audience sees her portrayal of Marguerite as accommodating and understanding, even when she is deprived of basic rights and freedoms. But she is also strong-willed and resolute; she sticks to her account of what happened even when everyone else is unconvinced.
It is rare in current Hollywood to see a studio-sanctioned, big-budget historical epic that isn’t based on a brand. Large-scale films without franchise ties and merchandise opportunities often flop at the box office, such as Scott’s own “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” The pattern continues with “The Last Duel,” which has grossed less than 20 percent of its production budget as of writing, which is a shame. Scott has created a successful and dense movie, and although it’s not perfect, it is one of his best forays into the medieval setting.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at email@example.com.