TRISTAN & ISOLDE
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Cast: James Franco, Sophia Myles, Rufus Sewell, David O'Hara, Bronagh Gallagher
MPAA Rating: (for intense battle sequences and some sexuality)
Running Time: 2:05
Release Date: 1/13/06
Review by Mark Dujsik
I hate commenting on such things, but the advertising for Tristan & Isolde is deceptive. First off, it attempts to connect the story with Romeo and Juliet, and I suppose on the basic emotional level of star-crossed lovers divided by warring factions who must deceive those around them to continue their affair only to find a tragic end. Thematically, the two couldn't be more different. Shakespeare sees his main characters' love as superior to the familial honor their romance so blatantly defies, whereas the tale of Tristan and Isolde understands their love (in the typical telling of the story, they are under the spell of a love potion, which is wisely deposed of here), but the conflict between love and honor is of a larger significance. Since we are also dealing—in certain versions at least—an Arthurian legend or—in the larger picture of all the versions—one out of the idealization of chivalry, the winner isn't going to be love. The more important deceit in advertising in terms of the film is in how it's being presented as a simple yet overdone version of archaic legend through a modern eyepiece, but in reality, the film's roots and execution are faithful to the source and allow the emotional and thematic complexity of the tale to shine through.
During the Dark Ages, England is divided after the fall of the Roman Empire. Young Tristan (Thomas Sangster) witnesses the death of his father and mother at the hands of the Irish, who have come to England to stop the country from uniting under the rule of Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), who takes Tristan into his family as a son. Meanwhile in Ireland, young Isolde (Isobel Scott Moynihan) is grieving over the death of her mother, and dreading a life under the rule of her father Donnchadh (David O'Hara), king of Ireland. Nine years later, Isolde (Sophia Myles) is trapped in an arranged marriage, and Tristan (James Franco) has grown up to fight the Irish. After an intense battle, he is left for dead and sent on a funeral boat across the sea. Isolde discovers his boat and nurses him back to health under the guise of a different name, and during the course of his recovery, they fall in love. Upon returning to England alone, Tristan discovers of a tournament established by Donnchadh to win the hand of his daughter, whose arranged husband was killed by Tristan. Tristan offers to fight in the contest to win a bride for Marke and to try and find his love again.
In winning the tournament, Tristan achieves both goals only to discover his love is now in direct violation of his responsibility to the man who raised him as a father and the future king of England. The dilemma is clear: Tristan cannot deny his love for Isolde, nor she for him, but acting upon it would amount to an act of personal and political treason. The script by Dean Georgaris treats the characters not as vehicles for sappy, romantic melodrama (although there is some of it present here) but as worthwhile characters with mature thoughts whose feelings get in the way of them. All of these characters live with their code of honor as their lifeblood. Tristan realizes firsthand the importance of a united England to stand against the random, brutal onslaughts from Ireland and sees Marke as the only viable source of hope in bringing this about. He is also dependent to Marke for his life, as Marke not only took him in as a son but saved him from becoming a casualty like his parents. Isolde is clearly against her father, not only for his cruelty but also for a more personal reason in the way she saw him treat her mother.
Marke's character and how Tristan and Isolde see and react to him are crucial to the success of this story, and Georgaris takes an unexpected but supremely appreciated route. The easy way is to make Marke a villainous, jealous cuckold, who Isolde despises and Tristan wants out of the way, but he is nowhere near the cliché. Instead Marke is an honorable leader, a decent man, and a loving husband, and the two lovers see all of this in him and regret what their actions mean for him. In the context of the original tale with love potion at play, none of this is an issue. Here, the characters are faced with the complex arena of human emotions, and the movie is brave enough to explore it. It makes Marke's ultimate decision regarding the two all the more character-revealing as a result and Tristan's final decision more than a foregone conclusion. Helping to keep the film grounded, director Kevin Reynolds is straightforward with the material, and cinematographer Artur Reinhart goes for the dreary realism of the times, all earth tones and shadowy interiors. The battles are cut with too much flash, but they remain sensible nonetheless.
James Franco and Sophia Myles are not standouts in their performances (although Myles is far too lovely to say she doesn't stand out). Neither are they bland; they just seem to fit. A lot of Tristan & Isolde is like that. The film sort of sneaks up on you with its technical assurance and solid storytelling in a way that is genuinely involving. It will probably have a lot of people saying, "That was a lot better than the ads made it out to be."
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.