A credible achievement it is to make two features of such lengthiness in one year, Ridley Scott forgets that quantity does not equal quality. Between The Last Duel and House of Gucci is almost six hours of artisanship, but none of it is confident of itself. Where House of Gucci closed itself off from innovation and toured the usual suspects of the biopic genre, The Last Duel relies on an impossibly grand scale and another ensemble. Scott is wasteful and has no way of separating the wheat from the chaff, but he doesn’t need to. There is enough in the grandiose and inspired status of The Last Duel for it to compete on its own level, primarily because there is nothing quite like it anymore.
Medieval features pop up now and then, usually as Netflix fodder for Chris Pine or sappy romance vehicles for whoever needs them. But The Last Duel is neither, and now it finds itself slithering onto Disney+. Hopefully, it will fare better there than it did in the cinemas. It is unlikely, but Matt Damon and Adam Driver are well worth the running time it takes to settle into this story of knights and honour, kings and swords. All the usual narrative devices used to spark medieval conflict are scrounged up and thrown at The Last Duel, most of them work relatively well. Damon and Driver are two big draws, and their roles here are both credible and enjoyable. The story flows at a decent pace, and the scenery around them is inspired if a little dark and grotty.
But all good features of the 1300s are dark and grotty. Driver’s accent is spot on as he wanders through grim-yet-glistening halls. Where House of Gucci’s pacing was predictable and staggered, The Last Duel bounces confidently between times and scenes of friendship between Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Driver). The Last Duel is, thankfully, character drive. It depends so consistently and creatively on the performances within. Ben Affleck and Jodie Comer offer strong supporting roles, and Scott’s direction is kind to their work. It all feels inviting and disgustingly dirty. Swords and scabbards, fight scenes and mood-setting cameras sway through bustling streets. Plagues and royalty provide a narratively rich dialogue, and audiences can take from that as much or as little as they like.
The effect is more or less the same. However involved an audience is with this latest Scott feature, it must be said that it is a great and engaging one. The stronger of his two features from this year, but still far from perfect. The Last Duel envelopes itself within the iconography of knights clashing swords, and its dedication in these moments steers it right. Awkward tensions between a few characters are set up and rarely pay off, but the interactions between them in these isolated scenes flow truly, truly well. It is stunningly easy to get lost in the world Scott and his cast conjure up, and that is more because of the natural flow and worldbuilding than anything else on offer.