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MOVIES: The Last Duel - Review

The Last Duel is a big, grand historical epic from Ridley Scott – whose lengthy career has given us many hits or misses – having defined both the horror and the sci-fi genre in the same film with Alien right the way up to delivering morbidly dull dramas like All the Money in the World and flat out disasters like Exodus: Gods and Kings, the way on which this film was going to fall was basically unknown going in. Its big asset for it – aside from its lavishly expensive production that makes you feel like you’re treading in the grit of the middle ages with the characters – its A-List cast, the central trio of Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer are excellent, but the film falls apart with its epic length – at almost three hours long, it feels more repetitive than necessary to tell the same story through the perspective of three different characters, meaning that it doesn’t really get going until the last act, too eager to get where it’s going and not spending significant time with any of the respective scenes.

It’s a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon in all but name, transported to France during the 1300s. We see a pair of friends, Damon and Driver’s squires, fall out and eventually get to the point when they compete in a duel to the Death, over a dispute caused by the now-Knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon), who listens to his wife, Marguirete, who tells him upon his return from Paris that Driver’s Jacques has sexually assaulted her. It’s a brutal story that takes no prisoners – but loses its impact in its portrayal of the sexual assault, showing it twice – at least one more time than necessary, and as a result it can feel gratuitous – robbing the story of its impact. Whilst the film shows you Jean’s truth, then Jacques’ truth, then Marguirete’s truth – the real truth – it loses its relevance in showing the same story three times, and nothing new is really gained from it until the end – unlike Rashomon where you not only learned something new each time but the film also didn’t overstay its welcome.

The length means that the film is somehow rushed in its need to get to the point and bloated at the same time. Marguirete’s truth is the most watchable of the three but its impact is shortlived, and Scott spends more time being interested in telling Jean and Jacques’ truth than hers, which can feel as a perceived injustice, especially when much of Jean’s is devoted to pure exposition in setting up the narrative, and can feel like the basic and most unnecessary take of all. It could have been something deeper and more melancholic but right from the start it’s clear that all Scott is interested in is getting to the big fight at the end, and it’s telling that Jean’s storyline only comes alive when he’s involved in war.

It’s rare that you get big, so-called original storylines on the big-screen that aren’t part of a franchise IP nowadays that can wheel this level of budget and star power, and it’s a shame that Ridley Scott ultimately fails to deliver. The film itself bombed at the box office, its competition and the current pandemic both counting against it, but it’s hard to see The Last Duel being a success in normal times, in a quiet schedule with little competition. It’s hostile, bleak and cold – I appreciate that it doesn’t try to be a crowd-pleaser, not shying away from the grit – but it did not work for me, with Scott - notably famous for his lack of subtelty - applying the bluntest of blunt-edged swords to the production here. If you're a Game of Thrones fan you'll even recognise its shameless sexposition, which given the tone of the story, does not suit it.

The performances outside of the central trio – in particular from Ben Affleck, can sometimes feel out of place – it’s like Affleck was told he was in Monty Python and the Holy Grail whilst the others were told they were in a different movie – he doesn’t feel convincing and as a result of both Affleck and Damon being there, in France, no less, it can feel like Boston in the 1300s rather than France in the 1300s. It completely fails to be immersive in the setting, with Damon himself looking like something out of an extra on an 80s genre film. Both may have been the wrong call for co-writers too.

When shows like The Last Kingdom can accomplish medieval-era storylines full of intrigue on the small screen that make the period feel lived in and real, it’s hard to wonder why the same feat cannot be accomplished at the cinema. Scott’s storyline and vision is bold and untampered with, but ultimately unfulfilling – a bloated mess, spending too much time on the wrong perspectives and not enough time on the right one.


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