A film review by Craig J. Koban
TRISTAN AND ISOLDE
2006, PG-13, 125 mins.
Tristan: James Franco / Isolde: Sophia Myles / Lord Marke: Rufus Sewell
/ King Donnchadh: David O'Hara / Melot: Henry Cavill / Leon: JB Blanc
/ Anwick: Jamie King
Stories of endless, illicit, and forbidden love are as old as the literary and performing arts themselves. This theme alone has been the benchmark for some of the most legendary works of the past. Obviously, we all know the coup de grace of all tragic love stories, Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET, but there are also the Italian adulterers Paolo and Francesca that have steamed up imaginations for centuries. Even masters like Wagner and Tchaikovsky have utilized this theme for their own advantages in some of their stirring orchestral work.
Whether it takes the form of poems, sonnets, plays, or operas, there is an everlasting and unmistakable allure to this type of storytelling. Romance, whether it is heart-rending or humorist, resonates with audiences across the ages.
I guess it comes as no surprise that we are served up yet another tale of two star crossed lovers that seemed made for one another, yet can’t find an easy way to be together. In this case the new film – TRISTAN AND ISOLDE – facilitates, I guess, the continued yearning of modern day audiences to reach out for this material. In a way, these age-old archetypes have been done so many countless times before that I went into this new film with some reservations. I have nothing against a good, old fashioned love story, per se, but only as long as the makers have done something fresh and invigorating with the underlying material. Yes, illicit love seems doomed from the beginning and often-young lovers that desperately want to be together can’t due to outside variables beyond their wills. Okay, I know all of this already. So, does TRISTAN AND ISOLDE offer us anything more than these standard messages? In short, not really. If anything, this film demonstrates – in a rather pedestrian and contrived way – that a love story on this scale done with a paint-by-numbers approach is actually kind of dull and uninspiring.
Many of you will either be very familiar or completely ignorant of the actual legend of Tristan and Isolde. Their story of disaster-prone love is believed to have originated in Britain in the 12th Century (some historians believe even earlier) and it does, in this way, predate good ol’ Billy’s ROMEO AND JULIET (a matter-of-fact point that the filmmakers take great pains at reinforcing in the film’s trailers). The elements of their tale are classically born and can see obvious extrapolations into other future works. The legend involves a set of lovers, both noble born and from decidedly different cultures and nations. The two, in the legend, seem destined and damned to an all-consuming, erotically charged, and drugged out romantic fling (this, of course, being the result of the two drinking a magic potion).
Their story became so intoxicating that it spread widely and pervasively and, as an inevitable result, a tremendous amount of differing versions and permutations of the tale emerged in Europe through the ages in different languages. Clearly, the most widely-know versions of the tale – at least to contemporary eyes – originated from Germany, largely thanks to Gottfried von Strasburg’s epic romance and Wagner’s dramatic music.
Now, of course, comes this new film appropriation of the legend, fresh from the school of historical/action filmmaking in the vein of GLADIATOR, TROY, and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. Actually, that comparison is a bit of a misnomer. Ridley Scott does, in fact, executive produce TRISTAN AND ISOLDE and has been forthcoming with revealing that this has been a passion project for him since he became a filmmaker (he originally longed to make the film in the late 70’s, but went on to do ALIEN instead in 1979 and the rest is cinematic history). He opted for a producing credit and gave Kevin Reynolds the job of helming the film.
Reynolds’ work has been a mixed bag, from the unsuccessful WATERWORLD, to the laughably atrocious RAPI NUI, to the poorly executed ROBIN HOOD (showcasing the worst miscasting ever with Kevin Costner as the swashbuckling hero) to good, solid films like the recent COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. Despite his dubious career, Reynolds does have ability behind the camera and even in his weaker films he gives the proceedings a darker, dimmer, grungier atmosphere (largely as the scenery would have been like).
Unfortunately, without Scott directing the project, TRISTAN AND ISOLDE has languished on the shelves at 20th Century Fox for nearly a year know, only finally to have been ordained unworthy enough to be dropped in the usually mediocre waters of a January release (let’s face it, how many great films ever see the light of day during this time of year?). Is the film worthy of such a scheduled release time? Yes and no. It certainly is not a second-rate film going experience, nor is it unpolished and incompetently directed. The film has lofty ambitions, to be sure, of being a hybrid piece of cinema. It desires to be a big, bold, expansive epic action film like so many that Scott has directed in the past. It also wants to be a tale of class and social struggles during the times when nations were engulfed in a seesaw struggle for both peace and autonomy. Finally, TRISTAN AND ISOLDE – at face value – really wants to be a soulful and heart wrenching narrative of doomed love. There are strong themes here that could have been made into a much more powerful and absorbing work. Unfortunately, TRISTAN AND ISOLDE lacks passion, scope, scale, and personas to truly root for. The ingredients are here for the film, but Reynolds and company misses the mark on execution.
Interestingly, the film decided to forgo the more obvious magical and mystical sorcery elements of the legend, much like how other films like TROY and KING ARTHUR did. I believe this to be a mixed blessing for the film. I can see how the film wanted to ground itself more in a reality and needed a less contrived way for the lovers to fall for one another (is it not more inherently satisfying for two young souls to simply fall for one another because they love each other and not as the result of some magic brew, as in the legend?). However much Reynolds and the performers aim for veracity in the story and presentation, it’s all for not when you care very little for the lovers and the plight there are in. Rule#1 of pictures about tragic love: make us give a damn about the lovers. It makes it so much easier for our buy in.
TRISTAN AND ISOLDE takes elements from the legend – that of a Briton (Tristan, played by James Franco) and an Irish princess (Isolde, played by the gorgeous Sophia Myles). The film begins shortly after the Roman Empire has collapsed, circa 7th Century. Ireland has taken over the British Empire who seems keener of arguing with one another than to work together in a unilateral front to achieve both nationhood and a will to defend themselves against enemies. Rufus Sewell (always completely dependable in these type of films) plays Lord Marke who appears to be on a course for being King of his people. Tristan, who Lord Marke has taken as a surrogate son after his family fell before his eyes a decade earlier, leads Marke’s men against the attacks of the minions of King Donnchadh (David O-Hara), who plunge into Cornwall demanding tribute.
Tristan, despite having a animalistic intensity on the battlefield, apparently dies in combat and his body floats to sea in his funeral coffin/boat. Conveniently (actually, remarkably convenient would be better) he winds up on the shores of Ireland and into the hands of Isolde, the daughter of King Donnchadh (again, convenient). Isolde is a kind, caring lass and she nurses Tristan back to health (for a princess, she an incredibly adept nurse). Obviously, I do not need to tell you that both fall in love, but they seem to do so very, very fast. Why and how? Maybe because Isolde likes how Tristan looks without his shirt on as he bathes in the shallow waters of the seashore. Maybe Tristan falls for Isolde because she’s a babe, not to mention that – at one point – she stripes naked to provide his then hypothermia-induced body with some much needed heat. I dunno, the relationship in the film seems more lustful that one of love, but never mind.
I do not think that I am spoiling anything for you by saying that disaster soon strike the lovers. At one point in the film when the hapless Tristan thinks he has won the hand of Isolde, he has, in fact, won it for his Lord, Marke (this is not spoiler territory, it’s shown in the trailers). Now, Tristan must face a situation that only a soap opera would have the legs to endure. How can he love a woman when that same woman is now the possession of his Lord, the same man who essentially saved his life and gave him a life to live? Oh, and how can Isolde sleep with a man she does not love when her beloved Tristan lurks around at ever corner, haunting her heart? And, if this was all not bad enough, how can the two become a spiritual one when the possibility of such a union could upset a balance in their world and cause unrelenting hostilities and bloodshed? I only wish my life was as complicated.
TRISTAN AND ISODLE nearly capsizes largely because of one needlessly frustrating aspect – the relationship between the two lovers themselves. Their story needed more patience and build-up and a higher level of feverous intensity. They are simply too rushed into love for it to be acceptable and believable. Not only that, but why do they really love one another in the first place when it seems doomed for failure? What does a spirited and likeable lady like Isolde see in Tristan?
Sophia Myles is appealing and plucky as the troubled Isolde, and she is such a kind person that it’s no wonder why Tristan might fall for her. As for Tristan himself? He’s such a pretentious, sullen, moody, and monosyllabic bore and he his played in a performance that utterly lacks charm and or a hint of whimsy by James Franco. He gives the kind of stiff, soft-spoken (nearly to the point of being unintelligible), and inexpressive performance that Marlon Brando use to phone in on his worst days during the tail end of his career. Franco is an interesting actor that I admire (he was nearly flawless playing James Dean in the Made-For-Television film of the cinematic icon), but here it’s like all of his charismatic juices have been vacuumed away from him. He personifies Tristan as such a brooding, angry, icy, and somewhat disturbed soul that I kept wondering why the h-e-double hockey sticks Isolde wanted him in the first place.
One of the two saving graces of the film are in the production design. Reynolds sort of grimes up the film to good effect. This is not a bright, colourful, and exuberant love story. Reynolds grounds the film viscerally with a level of subtle period detail. The fact that he does not achieve a sense of majestic scope and range with the battle scenes is kind of redundant (a film with a low budget like this one is not going to be another GLADIATOR, folks, nor is it supposed to be). The action scenes are small in stature, but get the job done economically and expeditiously. However, fans of Scott's other spectacles may come out of this film a bit underwhelmed.
The other saving grace of the film is in the implementation of one key character. The most intriguing role in the film that I did admire was that of Lord Marke. Sewell has the most thankless job in the film in the sense that he has to play a character that is set up to be a despicable, vile, and evil antagonist to Tristan and Isolde when he is, in fact, kind of sympathetic. Sewell has made a career out of playing unrelentingly repugnant villains (like in the recent THE LEGEND OF ZORRO and other films like A KNIGHT’S TALE). It’s kind of startling how noble and decent his Lord Marke is, even when he discovers the secret of the love affair. He is not a cruel figure that forces himself on Isolde. He seems like a kind and pleasant suitor to her that really wants her to love him. There is a nice, observably subtlety to Sewell’s performance where he does not violently force Isolde into appreciating him. He’s patient and tries to gently foster a love between the two. When he confronts the two lovers about their affair, he does so as any normal man that has realized his wife has cheated on him. He does not punish them; he wants sincere explanations from them. He’s a wonderfully layered and nuanced character that simply deserved to be in a better film.
Yet, the film's modest and decent production values and one fascinating character ultimately can't save it. TRISTAN AND ISOLDE seems to be the victim of yet another effort by the studios to make a sanitized, PG-13 film targeted at a youth market. The fundamental motifs of the film seem to demand something more sexually charged and energized (imagine what a Bernardo Bertolucci could have done with this film?) and the battle scenes – albeit well realized – do seem rather bloodless in hindsight. All of this - combined with the two leads that fail to create a reasonable spark and chemistry between the two of them and a performance by Franco that’s downright miserable - makes TRISTAN AND ISOLDE an impassive and indolent tale of love. A story that has achieved the legendary status like this one has through the centuries deserved a larger than life, mythic gravitas. Instead, the film is nothing more than an uninspired Harlequin romance in medieval period dress. Someone forgot to create the much-needed spark to ignite the fire of this film's story. Without heat, TRISTAN AND ISOLDE burns out far too quickly.