Ridley Scott returns to large-scale religious medieval epics of knights, armor, swords, and honor with The Last Duel. Loosely based on historical events where a knight challenges a fellow squire to a duel to the death before God to determine the veracity of his wife’s claims of rape. Scott aims to tell the story through the eyes of the three central players Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer, but make no mistake, while the men fight to the death, this is Comer’s film owning every scene easily upstaging every other actor. Disney/20th Century Studios delivers an exceptional 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray experience with a terrific HDR10 transfer and an excellent Atmos track. Highly Recommended
Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) has challenged his Lord Pierre d’Alencon’s (Ben Affleck) Squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) in a duel. Before their King and God, the two men will battle to the death to determine the truth of Carrouges’ wife Marguerite’s (Jodi Comer) claims that Le Gris rapped her while her husband was away on business. If Carrouge wins, Marguerite’s claims are proven true by God and she reclaims her honor. If Carrouge perishes at the hands of Le Gris, then God has deemed her false, and she will be stripped, chained, and burned at the stake.
Ridley Scott and period epics go together like a fine cabernet and a delicious baked brie. Exodus: Gods and Kings notwithstanding, Scott has repeatedly displayed an impressive eye for crafting small intricate human stories against the backdrop of massive sword and armor combat sequences. Ever since The Duellists and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Scott has explored the lengths to which men will go for the glory of King, God, and Honor. Some men are willing to travel the world to expunge their souls of sin. Other men will duel to the death to prove their version of the truth as the whole truth. This is where we find The Last Duel. Loosely based on real-life historical events and characters, the film explores how the laws of 14th Century France were designed to protect men and continue the subjugation of women not as an inferior sex - but as property to be traded and exploited.
The events of The Last Duel are told from three points of view. First is Matt Damon’s Sir Jean de Carrouges who as a loyal knight fought for his Lord, the King, and the glory of God but has been slighted at every turn. The assault upon his loving wife is the final insult and he must fight for her honor. Second is Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, an admitted libertine but with a romantic heart who views Marguerite as a caged creature of beauty that only he can free by giving her his love. And then the actual truth as told through Jodi Comer’s Marguerite where she neither invited nor initiated Le Gris’ advances and assault, nor is Carrouges’ intentions so noble as to defend her honor but regain his own glory and standing before the King.
How Scott structures the film will draw a number of comparisons to a particular 1950 Akira Kurosawa film, but really that’s where the similarities begin and end. To fully do this story justice there’s really no other effective way to tell it than through various lenses of “truth” before arriving at the actual truth. And always through these explorations of truth, Scott never loses sight that the men of the film have relatively little to lose and everything to gain where women in these positions are powerless at the laws written by men. It’s easy to dismiss a lot of this exploration as period film melodrama, but take an honest look at the world today. When a New York judge can deem prison “inappropriate” for an admitted convicted serial rapist and instead give him probation - we really haven’t advanced that far in the 700 years since the events of this story took place. This story is relevant and worth being told.
While Matt Damon and Adam Driver are the headliners and much of the happenings revolve around their characters’ actions, this is Comer’s film. She delivers a genuinely versatile performance playing her character as Marguerite would be viewed by others. First, the perfect loving wife views her husband as the ideal honorable and selfless man. The second is an object of conquest who views the advances of another man as part of the playful game of lovemaking and courtship. And for the final stretch, Comer gets to play Marguerite as she is - an educated beautiful woman of worth and ability whose husband is not the pious man he claims nor is her attacker the dedicated would-be lover he claims.
If I have a complaint about the film is that the first hour is pretty clunky. As it’s trying to tell the events from certain perspectives, it’s also working very hard to constantly educate the audience of time and place. Usually, this is achieved with repeated date and location title cards complete with a bunch of men on horseback riding towards a castle. As the film progresses those frequent establishing and reestablishing shots of time and place smooth out, but it’s clunky nonetheless.
While this film clocks in at two and a half hours, it is still oddly paced and truncated. If you were to tell me that like Kingdom of Heaven there’s a much better near-four-hour cut of the film I would believe you. This released version is much better and “whole” than the initial theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven, it feels like there could be a more expansive and possibly better Director’s Cut out there lurking in an editing bay somewhere that doesn’t suddenly jump from one exciting battle sequence to the next with little peppers of drama in between. But those are little gripes really. When this film works - and most of the time it does - it's excellent.
Now, given recent interviews and soundbites, I can’t earnestly end my review of The Last Duel here without addressing Scott’s recent comments about why the film didn’t take the Box Office by storm. To be honest, as someone at the far end of being a "Millennial," I think he has a point about people watching movies on their phones or how a certain genre I love dearly sucks up all the studio dollars and theater seats. But at the same time, this was a horribly marketed film that barely scratched at what the film was actually about. Looking back at the trailers after watching this film in full and it’s almost advertising two different films. Had the trailers focused more on Comer, the legal aspects, and less on the action - it might have found its target audience. It’s not 100% a generational or genre-specific issue. But that’s only half the problem in my eyes.
More damaging I think was to open one week after No Time To Die on the same day as Halloween Kills the week before Dune with Venom: Let There Be Carnage still pulling big numbers while an ongoing pandemic strangles theater attendance. That was just a misguided time to drop an adult-focused historic drama when studios and theaters didn’t know whether or not audiences were really coming back to theaters. 20th Century Studios could have saved this for late December or early January 2022 when there’s basically nothing to see in theaters and I’m sure it’d have done better. Make no mistake, I think The Last Duel is an excellent movie and one of Scott’s better efforts in the last few years, but its rise and fall at the box office isn’t a generational demographics issue.
Now that you can easily with streaming and this disc release - go see The Last Duel. By the end, I found this film to be a compelling and impressively mounted production. The incredible action sequences of knights on horseback from Kingdom of Heaven combined with the raw heart-in-your-throat one-on-one combat of Gladiator are brutally visceral. The legalities of the time period are also compelling. Little things like doweries, debts, and land management would be dry and boring in any other director’s hands but Scott finds the emotional core in these scenes so they’re always thematically relevant to the central issue of how humans and laws view property - and how that view is often extended to the treatment of women.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel arrives on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in a two-disc 4K UHD + Blu-ray + Digital set courtesy of Disney/20th Century Studios. Pressed on a BD-66 disc, the discs are housed in a standard black keepcase with identical slipcover artwork. The disc opens to an options menu allowing you to skip right into the show or proceed to a standard main menu.
Ridley Scott delivers another exceptionally detailed film that is perfect fodder for stretching your 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray setup. Featuring a native 4K HDR10 2.39:1 transfer, the image is simply gorgeous - for how bleak and dour the film is. While there are great colors in the film - this is not a colorful film. Much of the action takes place in cold dreary battlefields or in dark candle-lit rooms so true Red, Blue, Yellow primaries get little attention. Instead, there are periphery shades of color given any scene’s lighting scheme. This is the arena where HDR10 really helps. While a decent transfer, I felt the SDR Blu-ray really doesn’t bring these images to life. This 4K transfer offers genuinely rich deep blacks with intricate shadow separation and color gradience (depending on the light source). The real showstopper for me was the extended trial sequence when Marguerite is being interrogated. In all of that candlelight, you can appreciate the shades of red, green, blue, brown throughout all of the intricate costuming.
Detail levels are exquisite throughout. Costuming textures, production design, even the detailing in the paper and documents offer minute details. It’s really impressive when you look at large cast sequences with fully decked-out extras - a lot of work went into this film with practical and digital effects. Thankfully HDR doesn’t fully betray the CGI or cause it to be weightless or float as it can in some films. If the CGI stands out its simply so uncanny valley your eyes can’t quite accept it. But if you love knights in combat, this is some thrilling stuff!
Not to be left behind, The Last Duel also offers up a genuinely excellent Dolby Atmos audio mix. The issues with limp Atmos tracks must be a specific Mouse House specialty and not extend to 20th Century Studios. The opening horseback charge across the river is awesome. You have what sounds like a hundred galloping horses, screaming men, and clanging swords and armor with an excellent score delivering amazing 360° immersion and thundering LFE rumbling the subs.
Height channels really come alive in these sequences, but when things calm down they provide excellent scene-specific atmospheric effects. Sometimes it’s an echo in a castle room, sometimes it’s a gust of wind, but the imaging is fantastic throughout the soundscape. Throughout dialog is clean and clear without issue. The score by Harry Gregson-Williams is beautifully woven into the film giving big action scenes an extra pulse while letting quiet dramatic beats have their own moments of glory. All around a terrific Atmos track.
Now here’s an area where I do hope that Ridley Scott and 20th Century Studios are planning a more elaborate set. Even with lesser efforts, Scott has always been good for a commentary track - often delivering some genuinely educational experiences with his bonus features. Here, we’re given only a half-hour making-of documentary directed by his Granddaughter Cuba Scott. Which is cool considering family legacy, and it is informative, but for a Ridley Scott epic this is pretty slim pickings. All bonus features are found on the 1080p Blu-ray disc.
While The Last Duel may not be the greatest period epic Ridley Scott ever made, it is a heck of an experience easily one of his best films in recent years. I haven’t personally seen House of Gucci yet so I can’t testify to that one. With a great script by Nicole Holofcener with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck contributing, Scott finds an intricately detailed, and relevant historical story to tell for modern times with an amazing performance from Jodi Comer at the center of it all. Not an easy film, but then it’s not an easy subject to tackle. Disney/20th Century Studios delivers a genuinely excellent 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release with a fantastic HDR10 transfer and Atmos mix to match. My only real upset here is the lack of expansive bonus features. Regardless of that small pinch, this is a great film worth seeing on a great disc. Highly Recommended.