Ridley Scott’s debut feature was The Duellists, a remarkable film that put the ad-man into the box seat when it comes to Hollywood; Alien and Blade Runner were just around the corner. A Joseph Conrad adaptation set during the Napoleonic Wars, The Duellists is an atmospheric story that might have been a career pinnacle for most directors, but for Scott, it was just a calling card. Hits like Thelma and Louise or Gladiator couldn’t be more different, but demonstrate an innate grasp of storytelling. House of Gucci is on the way, but the much delayed The Last Duel is worth highlighting for admirers of Ridley Scott’s storytelling brand; it’s probably his best film in two decades.
The cast are a big draw; Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Adam Driver and hot property du jour, Jodie Comer. But none of the big stars are doing what you expect here. Gaunt of appearance and with a shock of blonde hair, Affleck plays Count Pierre d’Alençon, a sexed-up power broker in 14th century France. His right hand man is Jacques Le Gris (Driver), a headstrong knight with a personally gratifying notion of chivalry that the louche d’Alençon does little to dissuade. Into their fetid orbit come Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and his new wife Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer), and the two men, drunk on their own power, decide to wield their powers with selfish impunity. Rashomon-style, we see events unfold from three points of view, d’Alençon, Le Gris and Marguerite, with a canny subtitle indicating that the female view is the one that holds the most dramatic veracity.
Scott has had no shortage of strong female characters, Ripley in Alien, Thelma and Louise and even GI Jane, but giving over The Last Duel’s climax to a female POV is quite a gamble when playing with the historical epic genre which is traditionally a male dominated one. We’ve seen the cliché in epics where a nobleman seeks revenge for the rape of his wife, but The Last Duel doubles-down on an unsavoury plot-point, puts the female victim centre stage and gives her a voice. So while The Last Duel opens and closes with the expected man to man confrontations, we’re left with a deliberate sense that the much-prized honour that’s being so intensely fought for has been splintered and damaged in transit.
That’s a subversive notion for a big, star-packed epic, but Scott, working with Nicole Holofcener will confound those who seek to label his cinematic style with this film. By choosing Marguarrite’s story as the primary text, and subverting the self-centred stories told by the men, Scott turns cinematic traditions on their heads. The leads all seem to enjoy playing against type, but the real big news here is Comer, who initially seems wasted in a secondary part, but takes control of the narrative and centres it with some skill. While The Last Duel is loaded with know-how, with creative lighting, locations, excellent secondary cast and some brutal action when it comes, it’s also a bookend with The Duellists that reflects the very different times of its making. The rivalry between men has been explored many times, but never like this; Scott is still a cutting edge force in cinema, and The Last Duel is a daring, thought-provoking film that risks being caviar to the general.
The Last Duel is out in UK and US cinemas from Oct 15th 2021.
Thanks to Disney for access to this film.