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Supposedly based on a story that gave inspiration to not only Romeo and Juliet, but also the threesome of Guinevere, Lancelot, and King Arthur, “Tristan and Isolde” stars James Franco (“The Great Raid”) as Tristan and Sophia Myles as Isolde, forbidden lovers during the Dark Ages of the 7th Century. With the Roman Empire a memory, England lays in ruins, ruled by tribes that fight among themselves, while the Irish, led by the fiendish King Donnchadh (David O’Hara) plots their destruction from across the sea.
Against this backdrop, orphan boy Tristan is raised by Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), a good and noble leader who longs to unite the Britons against the constantly invading Irish. A series of events lead Tristan to drift in the sea, thought dead by his comrades. The English warrior lands on the beaches of Ireland , where young Isolde rescues and nurses him back to health. Predictably, the two fall in love. By yet another series of events, Tristan later returns to Ireland as the champion of Marke, who believes he can unite the Britons if he wins the hand of Donnchadh’s daughter in a contest. Unbeknownst to Tristan, the woman whose hand he has won for his Lord is no other than Isolde, setting the stage for forbidden love, betrayal, and finally, tragedy.
If it sounds overly complicated, it’s really not. The film breaks down into essentially two halves — the first is a romantic love story between young lovers Tristan and Isolde, and the second a tragic melodrama where politics and duty threatens to tear apart all those involved. It’s not until the hour mark that Isolde becomes betrothed to Marke, setting the stage for tragedy. Directed by Kevin Reynolds (“Prince of Thieves”), “Tristan and Isolde” seems to have ambitions of being an epic adventure in the vein of “Braveheart”, but a PG-13 rating simply won’t allow too much bloodletting, something Reynolds tries mightily to get around with fast-cutting. For the most part he succeeds, even if the film still reeks of “tameness” despite its sometimes ferocious medieval combat.
Originally slated to be made by Ridley “King of Medieval Flicks” Scott in the late ’70s (Ridley opted for “Alien” instead), 2006’s “Tristan and Isolde” falls into the same category as Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 film “King Arthur”, in that it’s a new take on an old tale. And like Fuqua’s “Arthur”, there is no fantastical element to Reynolds’ movie, as well as a purposeful complete absence of magic. As such, there’s little doubt how the film will end, and the marketing whiz who sold the film as “Before there was Romeo and Juliet, there was Tristan and Isolde” sort of gives away the film’s ending. Geniuses, those Hollywood PR folks, don’t you think?
The performances in “Tristan and Isolde” are serviceable. James Franco, who I have always been a fan of, does well as the brooding Tristan, but it’s Sophia Myles who threatens to take over the film at times with her smoldering performance. It doesn’t hurt that Myles is gorgeous as the fiery Irish lass, even if her accent does come and goes throughout the movie. Rufus Sewell (“Dark City”) is credible as the kind Lord Marke, whose character is smartly never made into a villain. The fact that Marke is a sympathetic figure makes the tragedy all the more tragic, as we realize that in this love triangle, all three participants are equally deserving of “Once upon a time” happy endings.
At over two hours, “Tristan and Isolde” does come across as unwieldy at times. As mentioned, the film’s main premise doesn’t come to fruition until well past the hour mark, which leaves about 30 minutes of Tristan and Isolde sneaking out for passionate sex in the woods, and another 20 minutes for the film’s compressed climax. A better choice might have been to make the film longer, or if that wasn’t possible, then some judicious editing of the first hour to get to the crux of the story faster. There are also subplots about sibling rivalry between Tristan and Melot (Henry Cavill) that never really amounts to very much from an emotional standpoint.
Fans of melodramatic tales of love and adventurous daring-do will get a kick out of “Tristan and Isolde”. It’s not as huge in scale and scope as Ridley Scott’s costumed epics, and is, once again, really more along the lines of the recent “King Arthur”, both in tone and look. The PG-13 rating definitely puts a crimp on things, as the film is relatively bloodless despite the medieval combat and Tristan and Isolde’s many couplings never progress beyond close-ups of nude heads. Apparently the studio looked at the film’s abysmal box office numbers and decided that assembling an Unrated (or even an R-Rated) version for DVD sales was not even worth it. Too bad, because I’m sure the promise of extra skin from the lovely Miss Sophia Myles, or extra blood from all the medieval fighting, would have sold a few more DVDs.
Kevin Reynolds (director) / Dean Georgaris (screenplay)
CAST: James Franco …. Tristan
Sophia Myles …. Isolde
Rufus Sewell …. Lord Marke
David O’Hara …. King Donnchadh
Henry Cavill …. Melot