Monday, June 05, 2006

Tristan + Isolde / **½ (PG-13)

Tristan: James Franco
Isolde: Sophia Myles
Lord Marke: Rufus Sewell
King Donnchadh: David Patrick O’Hara
Melot: Henry Cavill
Wictred: Mark Strong
Bragnae: Bronagh Gallagher

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film by Kevin Reynolds. Written by Dean Georgaris. Running time: 125 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense battle sequences and some sexuality).

In his most recent collection of film reviews, film critic Roger Ebert cites playwright George Bernard Shaw as stating that description itself could be criticism. Ebert then writes, “Sometimes to simply see what is in the movie, through your own eyes, is to comment on it.” I would add that to read the plot of a film can be an even better experience than actually seeing the film itself.

“Tristan + Isolde” seems to be a film from another time in Hollywood. Indeed, the film was originally conceived by Ridley Scott to be the follow-up to his feature debut, “The Duelists”, almost thirty years ago. It comes from a time when films were more romantic, more willing to explore older settings. It comes in the form of a sword and kingdom historical epic, but tells of a romance that could not be. Like the recent films “King Arthur” and Scott’s undervalued “Kingdom of Heaven”, it reinvents early European history to tell a more universal tale. And what a deliciously juicy tale it is.

During the years following Roman occupation of England, the strong forces that were able to drive the Romans out have crumbled and divided the land into separate districts. Meanwhile, Ireland has become a unified tyrannical force that persistently pillages the English provinces in an effort to break any chance of unification. When Lord Aragon (Richard Dillane, TV’s “Hustle”) gathers the lords of the English provinces to sign a treaty uniting them under one king, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell, “The Legend of Zorro”), they are attacked by the Irish, and Aragon is killed in the presence of his son, Tristan.

Tristan is saved by Lord Marke, who loses his hand in the melee. Marke’s province of Cornwall is attacked at the same time and he loses his wife and son as well. Taking Tristan as a surrogate son, the boy eventually grows to become Marke’s best fighter and military strategist, leaving his nephew Melot (Henry Cavill, “The Count of Monte Cristo”) as second fiddle despite the blood relation.

During a rescue of slaves taken by Irish soldiers, Tristan is wounded by the poisoned sword of Morholt (Graham Mullins). His men take him for dead and give him a royal burial, setting him to sea. He washes up on the Irish coast, where Isolde resuscitates him.

Not knowing that Tristan murdered the man to whom she was unwillingly betrothed by her father, Isolde and Tristan begin to fall in love. She keeps from him the fact that she is the daughter of King Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara, “Hotel Rwanda”). When Tristan is well again, she forces him to leave Ireland so her father will not find and kill him. “I want to know that there's more to this life and I can't know that if they kill you. Please! Go.”

Upon Tristan’s return to Cornwall, King Donnchadh offers a truce and, as a calculated move to keep the English provinces divided, a tournament is devised. The winner will be awarded his daughter as a queen to an English throne. The tournament is in favor of Lord Wictred (Mark Strong, “Syriana”), a willing servant to Donnchadh and therefore a man the other lords of England would refuse to unite behind.

Tristan competes in Lord Marke’s stead and wins Isolde. At first, Isolde thinks Tristan has won her for himself, while Tristan is unaware that the prize is his Irish love. Both are pained that she must now marry the man to whom Tristan is bound by duty and love. Marke is a good man to both, making their feelings for each other that must more painful. There is no way this can have a happy ending.

The film’s trailer claims that, “Before Romeo & Juliet, there was Tristan & Isolde”, but the trail of deception and betrayal found here makes Shakespeare’s musings seem like nursery rhymes. This story has so much potential for pain, it’s surprising that the film, although handsomely produced and firmly executed, is not as moving as it should be.
Perhaps the performances by the lead actors are to blame. But I’m not inclined to think so, since

James Franco (“Spider-Man”) and Sophia Myles (“Underworld”), as the titular lovers, each have the zeal and presence to carry off a passionate romance. Perhaps then the fault lies in the direction by Kevin Reynolds, whose lively period pieces in the past have included “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”. It’s as if he’s tried to keep this story down to earth, going for a realistic portrayal of the period and choosing politics over melodrama.

There is further depth to the drama that I have not revealed here and it gains steam as it goes along, but the full potential of these characters’ painful circumstance is never completely tapped. Despite its glorious setting and well-drawn production values, “Tristan + Isolde” seems muted. The film is an honorable effort, but the filmmakers’ passion for the material doesn’t seem to match the passion required by the wonderful plot.

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