If you’ve seen any preview for The Last Duel, you know what it’s about and you also know one immutable fact: the woman is telling the truth. This film is about more than just who is being honest, however, and nearly every aspect of the production is unexpectedly sophisticated.
The structure of the film itself is an important place to start. The Last Duel was written by Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Eric Jager. It’s about the story surrounding the last legally authorized duel fought in France in the 1300s. Knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon) requests a trial by combat when his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) is raped by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), his former friend and squire. The events are dramatized in the film three times, once for each of the three people involved.
If this type of narrative device sounds familiar, that’s because Akira Kurosawa‘s legendary 1950 Japanese classic Rashomon revolutionized storytelling when it was presented with the same structure. It had a tremendous impact on popular culture, and has been referenced countless times since then. In fact, Damon himself has a similar project on his resume. The 1996 war drama Courage Under Fire, which has Damon in a supporting role, details an investigation to award a Medal of Honor to a woman for the very first time.
The Last Duel takes this style of chronology and wraps it up in historical, epic trappings. Damon and Affleck haven’t written a film together since their breakout success with Good Will Hunting in 1997. Adding Holofcener (herself an accomplished director) to the writing team helped them center a female perspective, which is essential to this particular story.
Marguerite is not only the victim of a crime, her life will be forfeit if her husband loses the duel. She has no participation in the event that will determine her own fate, and the helplessness of that situation is something modern audiences need to empathize with for the film to work. The script addresses this, and the general situation of women at that period in history, with subtlety instead of a heavy hand. Comer takes the material and delivers a superb performance.
And she’s not the only one. There’s really not a case to be made for ANY of the male characters being likeable, but the actors dig in. Damon truly commits to de Carrouges’ sulky, childish petulance. And his mullet. Driver gives his character the kind of even-keeled rapport with others that successfully supports the plot. He genuinely believes he is innocent when he is not. Affleck, meanwhile, is clearly having a grand old time being a bitchy bleached-blonde local lord and he’s surprisingly entertaining. His presence is reminiscent of his turn as Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love.
I haven’t even mentioned that these actors are working under the direction of Ridley Scott, the prolific and lauded filmmaker who is no stranger to historical epics (like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven) or female-centered stories (Thelma and Louise, In Her Shoes). This veteran director has well-honed instincts for where his camera should be and how it should move or not, depending on the scene. The well-choreographed battle sequences are used sparingly until the brutal and violent final duel, which begins as a joust then moves to hand-to-hand combat. He also takes advantage of the differing perspectives to alter staging and blocking in scenes that repeat, leading to a richer experience for the viewer.
Each retelling of events here is introduced with “The Truth According to” each character. Marguerite’s point-of-view is presented last, and the filmmakers allow the words “the truth” to linger on the screen, implying her version should be the most trusted. It is a strong storytelling choice, and a boon to female viewers who aren’t always considered when making a film of this genre. The Last Duel is more than wonderful visuals. It is a watchable epic of the kind that feels more rare than they used to be.
The Last Duel is now in theaters.