Two French squires, comrades in arms, feud and eventually come to blows in a battle to the death.
Set in medieval, 14th century France, Ridley Scott’s recent directorial effort The Last Duel became a topic of hot debate in 2021. So much so, one could be reluctant to even watch the movie and critique it for its own merits and flaws.
The film released under the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, or at the very least, the tail end of the worst of the global lockdown encouraged by it. The same time as Disney/Marvel released Eternals, and Denis Villeneuve further delayed his Dune first-parter. Under the conditions, The Last Duel was considered a massive flop, earning around $9 million on its opening weekend, against a budget of $100 million. Director Ridley Scott took to shouting fierce rhetoric: claiming Disney’s comic book movies are killing the industry; that modern audiences lacked interest in intellectual films, or that the millennial audiences were “brought up on these f***ing cell phones.”
Now, “old man shouting at cloud” might be the appropriate response here. The Last Duel‘s suffering may have easily have been because older audiences with which it was directed at, did not go out in public during a pandemic. That, and also marketing. There are signs that under their recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox, Disney does not give much credence to marketing to such movies. This second possibility is likely: I certainly saw little to no adverting for the film.
But, is The Last Duel worth all of this drama? Is it deserving of its flop status, is Scott losing touch? Or was it terrible timing and lack of marketing?
Well, to start with the obvious and therefore the negatives.
The film opens and establishes itself in France in the mid-1300s. There must have been some sort of total occupation during that time, because every single person speaks English.
It might be a nitpick, because why would you accept English in Scott’s other epic Gladiator (for example) and not here? For one, Gladiator would be predominantly in Latin if it were accurate. There is something off-putting about a film set in France, and the only time the characters speak French/Latin/German is when reading verse or prose.
For all of the realism the film has in spades, the fact they are speaking rather modern English, is always going to be a slight downside. But hey, you have to have big Hollywood names to get people to watch… Right?
That is the heaviest complaint. The rest of the film is solid.
Told from three perspectives, the story is a closed, narrow-focus story around two squires who come into argument and squabbles about various escalating dealings, drawing to a climactic duel. Each perspective gives some repeated scenes, with each character acting slightly (or greatly) different to what was seen previously, giving emphasis on the thoughts and motivations of the person who’s perspective it is.
This puts weight on the acting and performances of stars Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer, who certainly do excellent work here. With nuanced differences in each perspective, a passing glance, a stance, or the delivery of a kiss.
Certainly, the film is full of melodrama. It is not an action-filled movie like Gladiator, and certainly Scott is opposing the storm of comic book movies in more than just words. The Last Duel, even under normal circumstances, would not have been a crowd-pleaser. Certainly, it would not be a flop, but it wouldn’t have been able to compete with more bubbly experiences.
The film is grim. Emotions are frayed and fraught. Battles of steel are outweighed by battles over estates and titles, land deeds and finances. There isn’t really a character you can root for; each character is intense, and barely likeable. Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris is an arrogant womaniser, and Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges is an over-protective man with the subtly of a bull.
So it isn’t a crowd-pleaser. But if you can look past the grim characters, you can see a more intricate piece of storytelling beneath, one focused centrally on Jodie Comer’s character Marguerite.
Also, as with all of Ridley Scott’s films, The Last Duel looks superb. The production value is on point, with sets, costumes and battles. The action is reminiscent of Gladiator; fast and kinetic camera work, and not shy on blood and medieval carnage. The titular duel is exceptionally well done (it took over two months to plan and two weeks to film!) it certainly gives the film a memorable end.
A nearly invisible Ben Affleck fills out the supporting cast (he and Matt Damon returned to writing duties for this film as well) and honestly, the political backdrop of the film was almost more intriguing than the quarrelling of lovers and emotional entropy. The perspectives lending little to what the characters’ leaders do, but it is clear they think very little of them.
So no, the film does not deserve the term “flop.” Not in the slightest. It however was totally unreasonable for its director to shame the majority of his consumers for not going for “intellectual” properties. Especially when the film itself is not going to appeal to everyone to begin with. The Last Duel is practically an arthouse movie, just with budget and Scott’s incredible production values.
It took a bit of effort to watch at all, in light of this drama, and certainly audiences should steel themselves beforehand, but it is good movie.