NOTE: 20th Century Studios provided us with a free digital copy of this film for review. All opinions expressed are my own.
War is hell, but the quest for the truth can be an even more bloody battle. Imagine a woman seeking justice for a sexual assault in 14th century France. That is the story behind The Last Duel from 20th Century Studios and director Ridley Scott. You can learn more about the plot and take a look at one of the trailers here.
I'm going to try to keep this review spoiler free, even though the film has been out for a while and has now hit home release as well. One thing I can tell you is, be sure to set aside a good bit of time for this one. The film runs nearly two and a half hours, partially because we get to see several different perspectives on the same story. After giving a bit of backstory for the relationship between Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), we get to see their versions of what occurred with some story elements repeated. We also see the horrifying truth of Marguerite de Courrouges (Jodie Comer), the woman who's true story that the film is based on. This provides some very interesting context, and shows just how backwards some of the thinking was back in those days.
Speaking of that, there are a lot of reasons not to like a lot of the characters in the film. That took me out of things a bit, mainly because when it came time to have a rooting interest, I wasn't as invested in the outcome as I should have been. Obviously, I found myself wanting justice for Marguerite, but that did not mean that I found myself rooting for Jean. His motives aren't exactly have a lot of honor to them, but they are certainly better than the despicable Jacques. Even if you tend to believe Jacques is innocent, his close ties to the deplorable Pierre d'Alençon (Ben Affleck) gave me no reason to want to see him spared. Pierre is your typical arrogant, adulterous member of the monarchy who flaunt their position of power and don't have a single care for anyone who doesn't bow to their every whim. A better part of the middle of the film works at making them a pair to despise, and that certainly marred the tension a bit.
It doesn't help that Jean was a bit of a wooden and bitter character. Did he get a raw deal? Sure he did, and he had every right to be upset. He also had every reason to put that behind him and move on with his life, he just chose not to and it ultimately had a huge impact on his family. It's not like he was the model husband either, and again another example of women being treated more as trophies or property rather than as people and as an equal. It doesn't help that his mother is the worst kind of mother-in-law.
One thing that this film gets 100% right is the final duel itself. I know that I said that I found myself without a clear rooting interest, but I was completely locked into this battle. Not only was it choreographed extremely well from start to finish, you never really knew when it would be over. I mean that in a good way, because there were several times where I thought either one of these men would be going down for the final time. Every potential climactic point was riveting, with the battle as a whole pulling out all of the stops. The end result played out brutally and extremely effective. Even if the road there was a bit rough, the exclamation point ultimately hit very nicely with this film.
The Last Duel boasted some strong individual performances, and certainly had some good moments. Ultimately, I didn't have that wow feeling that I was hoping to have. This wasn't one of those times where I watched a movie and instantly knew that it would be a Best Picture candidate. Given the genre, time period and story element alone, I'm sure it will be in the running. Outside of standout performances from Adam Driver and Jodie Comer, I don't see a lot of trophies in this movie's future. What I feel left with is a film that felt uneven. There were times that I felt things were too dragged out and repetitive. There were other times that I was completely locked in and invested. I did not, however, find myself questioning the truth of the allegations for even a moment. Making that a bit more of a mystery likely would have kept my interest a bit more.
If you approach this film knowing that you're in for a bit of repetition and long form storytelling, it might help you enjoy the film a bit more. If you love period pieces, this will certainly scratch that itch for you. Just keep in mind, the unlikable nature of the characters of this era are definitely ramped up a bit. You'll likely have your mind made up before the halfway point. How you choose to watch and ultimately judge the rest of the film at that point is up to you.
Photo Credit: 20th Century Studios