Tristan + Isolde

Movie Information

Genre: Period Drama
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: James Franco, Sophia Myles, Rufus Sewell, David O'Hara, Henry Cavill
Rated: PG-13

After theatrical impresario John Barrymore’s disastrous production of Joan of Arc in Howard Hawks’ 1934 comedy Twentieth Century, Roscoe Karns’ character says of Oscar Jaffe (Barrymore’s character): “Well, he’s gonna end up in the breadline unless he figures out that these dithering horse operas with a lot of people staggering around in foul iron suits ain’t entertainment.”

Director Kevin Reynolds’ best friends need to take him aside and offer similar advice.

I am convinced that Reynolds is not without talent. Look at The Count of Monte Cristo — anyone who can get a performance out of Jim Caviezel where the actor doesn’t come across as a dyspeptic stiff is obviously capable of doing something right. Unfortunately, Reynolds doesn’t do very much right in Tristan + Isolde.

A lot of what’s wrong with the film can be blamed on the laughably bad screenplay by Dean Gerogaris (the remake of The Manchurian Candidate). A lot more still can be blamed on the soppy leads, James Franco and Sophia Myles. That’s all fair enough, but Reynolds was around while all of this was going on, so some degree of culpability must be assumed.

If nothing else, he must have had something to do with the decision to have the film shot in what can only be called “drabchrome.” You know the look – dingy-brown and gray, where the sun never shines and all the landscapes are actually mudscapes. The idea appears to be that this makes the proceedings more realistic. In point of fact, it makes them look drab and dreary — and that’s the last thing this movie needs. Sound familiar? Yep, you saw it a couple of years ago in King Arthur, and while Tristan + Isolde is nowhere near as cosmically God-awful as that film, it shares both its look and its approach.

The idea is the same: Take a myth and de-mythify it. Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy did much the same thing by removing the gods from the story of The Iliad. I suppose if such an approach could really get down to the truth (where that even exists), there might be some point to the exercise, but otherwise … do we really want less magic in our legends? And if these stories are stripped of their mythic aspects, are they even very interesting anymore?

Oddly, Tristan‘s screenplay follows fairly closely in most respects to the outline of the Wagner opera based on the legend of Tristram and Iseult — though the screenplay does try to make the Brits the oppressed rather than the oppressors, as Wagner presented them. That’s probably a bid for increasing sympathy, just as is making Isolde’s betrothed, Morold — here called Morholt (stuntman Graham Mullins) — into a great, lumbering brute of an unwanted bridegroom-to-be. In the opera, Isolde hates and wants to kill Tristan for killing Morold — and, in fact, tries to poison him. Her maid, Bragnae, however, substitutes a love potion, and it is the spell of the potion that fires their ardor, not the mere teenage rippling of the loins the movie offers us.

Stripped of the magic, the pair is on pretty sketchy ground in terms of ethics, morals, gratitude and judgment. I suppose it doesn’t matter, though, since this is one of the great love stories of all time — at least according to the movie press kit. Too bad nothing in the film supports this idea, especially with a Tristan who looks like the missing dark-haired Bee Gee, and an Isolde who has a certain Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood look, but whose acting is on a par with Tristan’s English accent.

I’m not even sure what this movie wants to be. It opens with a series of titles that are clearly stolen straight from John Boorman’s Excalibur — yet that’s a film that is neither drab, nor without magic. Its title, Tristan + Isolde, inevitably calls to mind Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet — yet that’s another film that can hardly be called drab, and that never pretends to trade in anything approaching gritty realism. As for the gritty realism here, it’s often more funny than gritty, as when the Brits think Tristan is dead and give him a Viking funeral. The only problem is that they’re so inept at this that the boat doesn’t ever ignite. (The ancient Brits apparently didn’t know that green branches aren’t the best thing for a fire.)

And what can one make of dialogue like, “Why does loving you feel so wrong?” If ever there was a case for “cue the pop ballad,” this is it. And how about when a ribbon running across a map of Britain is pulled free like some medieval notion of a visual aid to reveal the image of a united land, and this is supposedly meant to impress a roomful of guys who can barely write their names in the dirt with a stick? The audience I saw the film with burst out laughing at this bit, though I hardly think that was director Kevin Reynolds’ intent.

However, there is one upside to the film. It affords that fine, overlooked and ill-used actor, Rufus Sewell, the best role he has had in a long, long time as King Marke. His performance — intelligent, modulated, moving — almost makes Tristan + Isolde worth seeing, but it also throws into even sharper relief how shallow, superficial and pointless the rest of the film is. Rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences and some sexuality.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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