The Last Duel
Historical narratives present problems, as the context of the stories either require extensive explanation due to societal and cultural differences with the modern era, or the tales themselves require framing in a way which will make sense to a contemporary viewer. The Last Duel, Ridley Scott’s big and brutal medieval drama, makes use of both solutions, though in differing ways. The result is an interesting though occasionally repetitive film that is longer than it needs to be but impactful all the same.
The lead role—and the subject of the duel, as it were—is played by Jodie Comer. It is not until over halfway into the film that we begin to see events from her perspective, as the film is structured to cover the same sequence of events three times. The first chapter is the account of Comer’s husband, played by Matt Damon. He is a violent and not particularly bright man, though loyal and loving towards his wife, at least how he sees it. He charges through life bull-headed, with a constantly set jaw and angry pout. The next chapter is told from the point-of-view of Damon’s friend, played by Adam Driver, who becomes besotted with Comer. He presents himself as irresistible to women, believing his intelligence and charm match his good looks to make him attractive to all he encounters. He spends his days socially climbing as friend and ally of Ben Affleck’s wonderfully bitchy hedonistic nobleman. Finally, we see Comer’s story, and it is different to both the previous versions. She is neither the innocent wife of Damon nor the feisty lover of Driver, but a woman seeking to survive who is unexpectedly changed by motherhood, as most parents are. These three chapters are preceded by a glimpse of the titular duel, and followed by it in full.
The script, penned by Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, is in some ways unconventional, but not as ground-breaking as it perhaps presents itself to be. Splitting a narrative into subjective accounts is not a new idea, and has been done before to varying degrees of success. The interesting part here is the historical tendency towards seeing women as property, with Comer presenting a fully-formed character existing in a man’s world where she is seen as merely a trophy. Her rights are secondary to the entitled men who surround her—defending her honour is about ownership, not chivalry—and she is the only character not driven by ego. Her compromises and choices are well-acted, and she holds her own and then some against the high-calibre male cast. Perhaps, instead of being about the writing, this film is testament to Comer’s acting skill that she fits so seamlessly amongst Damon, Driver, and Affleck. This will be her making, catapulting her into a different league of which she is deserving and clearly comfortable in.
As with any Ridley Scott film, the visuals and presentation are excellent. The use of natural light brings authenticity, as does the costuming and production design, and even the haircut choices make sense within the contextual narrative. It is long, violent, and often melodramatic, and there are moments when the standard its-a-medieval-movie-so-everyone-needs-to-use-a-nondescript-English-accents slip, but overall this is a strong and surprisingly nuanced film about a lot more than a simple duel between two old men.