Color me a non-fan of period pictures (most are difficult to relate to because of the characters' monotonously archaic actions and ways of thinking), and specifically, just as little of a fan of the horse and drawbridge and swordfight-style battle epics. There have been a few solid examples of this genre (i.e. 2000's "Gladiator
"), but in recent years, most have gone the way of 2004's overblown "Troy
," 2004's laughable "Alexander
," and 2005's dreadful-in-every-department "Kingdom of Heaven
." How ironic, then, that all of the aforementioned films cost well north of $100-million and were enormous failures, while the more economically-budgeted "Tristan & Isolde," which has reportedly sat on the shelf for over a year for reasons unknown, is head and shoulders the superior entertainment.
Based on a Medieval myth that told of a doomed romance, "Tristan & Isolde" captures the viewer's attention almost immediately and only becomes more involving and intimate the longer it goes on. The love story at the center of the tale is between British knight Tristan (James Franco) and Irish princess Isolde (Sophia Myles). Set during the Dark Ages, a time in which the relationship between England and Ireland alternated between rocky and downright hostile, Tristan and Isolde have a chance meeting when the boat carrying Tristan's thought-to-be-dead body washes ashore on the Ireland coast. Isolde, shielding her identity from him and not knowing at first that he has killed the man she was to be arranged in marriage with, secretly nurses Tristan back to health. Soon they have fallen for each other, but it is a forbidden love that becomes all the more taboo when she is uprooted from Ireland after the loss of a duel between countries and is forced into marrying the future king of England, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell)who also happens to have raised Tristan like his own son since childhood.
The advertising campaign promoting "Tristan & Isolde" as the "Romeo & Juliet" of an even earlier eraa gimmick that might pay off with the teenage girl audienceis both misleading and gives too much away. On the one hand, the film is stylistically nothing like Baz Luhrmann's modern "Romeo + Juliet" retelling, but they do share the quality of a passionate young romance certain to end in some kind of tragedy. Directed by Kevin Reynolds (2002's "The Count of Monte Cristo
") and written by Dean Georgaris (2004's "The Manchurian Candidate
"), "Tristan & Isolde" is a sweeping, heartfelt tale, beautifully told, that works on multiple levels.
As a historical action movieone that takes some liberties with the facts, it must be saidthe picture's battle sequences are exciting, well-edited, and technically accomplished. Each one has a specific purpose within the plot as opposed to just being there to shallowly enliven the proceedings, and mean something different to each of the central characters. As the story of a man who is torn between his passion for Isolde and his loyalty to both England and Lord Marke, director Kevin Reynolds treats the sticky romantic triangle with complex maturity, painting the involved trio as sympathetic three-dimensional individuals rather than so-called "good" guys and "bad" guys. And as a pure love story between two people who realize they can never openly be with each other in front of a judgmental society, the film is low-key and touching, reminding of similar themes covered in 2005's masterful "Brokeback Mountain
Despite admitted contrivances that bring them together and consistently tear them apart, the fateful relationship between Tristan and Isolde is one that exhibits enough charismatic fireworks to make the viewer believe their powerful connection is destined and true. Their desire to steal time to be with each other all the more underscores this notion, especially as their secret trysts grow riskier and acquaintances surrounding them slowly catch on to their intentions. This complicated situation, which cannot end well but certainly ends a little differently than one will be expecting, injects the film with a tense urgency just when it otherwise might have begun getting hokey or lugubrious. When Lord Marke inevitably discovers the affair, Isolde shares a terrifically smart and truthful scene with him in which, instead of making excuses, she tells him exactly what has been going on, and why. In return, Lord Marke, portrayed with a commanding presence mixed with a subtle vulnerability, reacts in a believable manner that avoids obviousness and unveils a real humanity. In this case, he isn't just the disposable third wheel within the equation.
Lushly shot by cinematographer Artur Reinhart, "Tristan & Isolde" is an unexpectedly arresting and dignified motion picture, too good, really, to be thrown into the usual cinematic dumping ground that is January. As the conflicted title couple, James Franco (2004's "Spider-Man 2
") and Sophia Myles (2004's "Thunderbirds
") are well cast. Besides being a classic beauty, Myles pours her soul into her role as Isolde that makes your heart break for the injustices her character's life path is faced with in a time when women of her place and stature had no other choice. As for Franco, his underplayed turn may just be the best acting ever done without ever moving a facial muscle. Tristan has one look throughoutpainful longingand yet Franco sells his every moment. "Tristan & Isolde" is emotional without being sappy and viably romantic without emasculating itself. Most appreciable of all, though, is the skill with which the story and its many plot threads are woven together into an enthralling whole that doesn't insult anyone's intelligence.