Movie Review: The Last Duel (2021)

TL;DR – Officially the last trial by combat held in France. The judicial duel between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris was triggered when Carrogues’s wife, Marguerite, claimed that Le Gris raped her. The winner was said to be the one who told the truth (through God’s will making him victorious), the other condemned to death.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Based on the book of the same name written by Eric Jager, The Last Duel depicts the harsh and ruthless time of medieval France when war raged constantly between the French and English. The story centres on three individuals. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver).

Jean and Jacques are friends who have fought together in many battles, but their friendship becomes strained when Jacques earns the favour of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). Jacques starts earning land and riches over Jean even though both have bled for their country and fought bravely. When Jean marries Marguerite, he was meant to receive a rich piece of land as part of her dowry, but instead Jacques seizes the land as payment of tax owed to the Count. The Count, in turn, having his financial affairs sorted by Jacques, gifts this land to Jacques.

When Jean attempts to sue the Count for the land he deems rightfully his, the King throws out the lawsuit. Adding insult to injury, the Count then appoints Jacques the captaincy of a fort that has been held and run for generations by Jean’s family.

After a period of time, Jean and Jacques attempt to bury the hatchet but the truce is temporary as it becomes clear that Jacques has eyes for Jean’s wife, Marguerite. When Jean leaves for a campaign to fight in Scotland, and Jean’s mother and her servants depart for the day, Marguerite finds herself alone in the castle. Jacques visits and tricks her into letting him in. He confesses his love for her and believes that Marguerite feels the same, but when she tells him to leave and he does not, she attempts to flee to her bedroom to lock the door. Jacques chases her down and rapes her.

When Jean returns from his campaign, Marguerite tells her what happened leading to Jean challenging Jacques to a duel even though he denies having raped Marguerite. The accusations are presented to the King who sanctions that duel and leaving it to God to show who is in the right.

Director Ridley Scott delivers an impactful film that captures the brutality of medieval times and how men held the power and the women were largely powerless. There are many strengths to the film. When I watched it in the cinema, the sound immediately grabbed me; every galloping horse, clashing sword, battle cry, and dying soldier reverberated through my entire body. The choreography was stunning as scenes were shot in both France and Ireland, and the dirt roads and castles made me feel how hard life would have been during that time. The costumes, both male and female, are elaborate, and the way knights are suited up in armour is captured in pain staking detail.

All these audio and visual elements are combined in a story told in three chapters. Chapter one is told from the perspective of Jean, chapter two from Jacques, and chapter three from Marguerite. Scenes are replayed in each chapter with both subtle and striking differences. These differences bring significant impact on how the viewer is presented the events leading up to the last duel.

Ridley Scott and company depict the truth as being Marguerite’s chapter. However, I have read that historians have long debated the innocence and guilt (and truth) of all three of these individuals.

Regardless, the final trial by combat had me shaking in my chair as both fighters (who were once friends) bloodied each other before the King’s audience and Marguerite who is standing alone in a wooden tower, chained to the floor, watching with heart in mouth. Marguerite did not know until too late that if her husband loses the duel then it would be viewed that God declared Jacques as telling the truth and that she lied about being raped. The penalty for her would be being tortured and burned at the stake.

Having read nothing about the historical events, I had no idea who would triumph. However, given the way the film unfolds, and it is the events of chapter three that is shown as the truth, I was relieved when Jean comes away triumphant and Marguerite is released from her chains and allowed to reunite with her husband. There is interesting ambiguity as the camera focuses on Marguerite as she rides silently several paces back from her husband who basks in his triumph and is being mobbed by the masses. It is an expression that speaks of how women were treated at that time, an expression that shows the crime of rape takes a backseat to a knight’s honour, and how women are cast in shadow, fit only to give birth to heirs.

Overall the film is engrossing. The only thing that I struggled with was the casting. More specifically, the casting of Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges. The rest of the cast are excellent, especially Comer and Driver. However, while Damon puts everything into his performance, I was not convinced. His speech and accent were mixed at best, and I felt the role would have been better suited with another actor (dare I say, an actual French actor or an actor who can speak French may have been a better fit? Tahar Rahim comes to mind). Still I enjoyed The Last Duel and the fact I want to pick up the book and read it says a lot to how effective the film is.

8.5 out of 10

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