Tristan and Isolde (United Kingdom/United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In movie theaters, January can be a month of surprises - most of them unpleasant. (I'm still trying to wash away the lasting stink from Grandma's Boy.) Fortunately, Tristan & Isolde bucks the trend, offering a tragic love story so involving that one wonders why 20th Century Fox elected to dump the picture in theaters at this time of the year without any support. It deserves better. I'm sure co-Executive Producer Ridley Scott would agree. He has been trying to get this movie made for about 25 years. And, although he ultimately didn't direct it (that task went to Kevin Reynolds, best known for his two Kevin Costner vehicles, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld), he had to stand by and watch the distributors let it gather dust sitting on their shelves for a year while they tried to figure out how to handle it. (After what happened with Kingdom of Heaven, Scott is probably used to being screwed by the studios.)

Tristan & Isolde is based on a very old British legend that tells of the doomed love between a Briton (Tristan) and an Irish princess (Isolde). It is believed that the story of Tristan and Isolde may be the inspiration for that of Lancelot and Guinevere and, at least as presented in Reynolds' version of the story (penned by Dean Georgaris), the Arthurian elements come to the fore. In order to better ground the tale, the filmmakers have removed references to sorcery (much as Wolfgang Petersen stripped the gods out of Troy).

Tristan & Isolde begins shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire, probably around the 7th century. Ireland has conquered the Britons, who are too busy squabbling amongst themselves to unite against the common enemy - until the emergence of Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), the man who would be king. When the minions of King Donnchadh (David O'Hara) arrive in Cornwall seeking tribute, they are met with stiff resistance led by Tristan (James Franco), the adopted nephew of Lord Marke. Tristan is apparently killed in battle, and his body is floated out to sea on a funeral boat. He ends up coming ashore in Ireland, where the beautiful daughter of King Donnchadh, Isolde (Sophia Myles), finds him and nurses him back to health. Predictably, the two fall in love, but they realize that, with war on the horizon, they have no future. Tristan heads home, but this is destined not to be the last time they meet - not by a long shot.

There's something beautiful about a well-made tragic love story. It may not be as uplifting as one with a happy ending, but it's more cathartic. Tears, they say, are good for the soul, and few will leave Tristan & Isolde with dry eyes. It is an affecting motion picture with enough romance to satisfy those who appreciate that genre, and enough swordplay and battle scenes to keep lovers of derring-do from becoming restless.

The best thing about the romance is that it seems real. Many motion picture love affairs, especially those dressed up in period garb, come across as forced. That's not to say Tristan and Isolde's sad story doesn't contain its share of contrivances, but they aren't as obvious as they would be in a more clumsily constructed film. We sympathize with these lovers, and take some solace that they are able to steal moments together when everything in the world is conspiring against them. The advertising campaign (to the extent that there is one) compares Tristan & Isolde with Romeo & Juliet. Not only isn't that fair, it's not accurate. The better association, as indicated above, is Arthur (Lord Marke), Lancelot (Tristan), and Guinevere (Isolde). In fact, just making that comparison gives away a lot of the plot.

James Franco, who suffered from occasional bouts of stiffness in the Spider-Man movies (especially the first one), is much improved here. Sophia Myles is radiant as Isolde. She treats the character with dignity, not like the heroine out of a Harlequin romance novel. Rufus Sewell (Dark City), a British character actor of some note, proves that he can play any role - heroic or villainous - with equal panache. The chemistry between Franco and Myles (a critical ingredient) is palpable, and there is a suitable sense of poignancy.

Reynolds decides to "dirty things up," so we're not dealing with a pleasant fantasy of perfectly coiffed ladies stepping daintily through the halls of immaculate palaces. Isolde is beautiful, but she's also wet and/or grimy a lot of the time, and the places where lords live aren't full-service facilities. This atmosphere is key to Tristan & Isolde's success, because it makes everything seem more real and immediate and, under those circumstances, we're willing to forgive a few coincidences.

Mention needs to be made of the PG-13 rating. It's the curse of a film like Tristan & Isolde that the need to reach a teenage audience results in the neutering of battle scenes that should be raw and bloody, and sex scenes that shouldn't be hurt by awkward camera angles and inappropriate close-ups. Ideally, Tristan & Isolde should be R-rated (and, for all I know, it was originally intended to be so). This is one of those rare movies when the pruning necessary to get a rating seems evident, and it makes me wonder how much better an already engaging motion picture could have been.

That quibble aside, I can wholeheartedly recommend Tristan & Isolde, even to those who don't have a penchant for period piece romances. The movie has a lot to offer, and hope those who like this kind of movie discover it either now or when it reaches the DVD store.

Tristan and Isolde (United Kingdom/United States, 2006)

Director: Kevin Reynolds
Cast: James Franco, Sophia Myles, Rufus Sewell, David O'Hara, Henry Cavill, JB Blanc Jamie King, Bronagh Gallagher
Screenplay: Dean Georgaris
Cinematography: Artur Reinhart
Music: Anne Dudley
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2006-01-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1