Based on a Celtic myth about star-crossed lovers, Tristan & Isolde takes viewers on a journey back in time to a period after the fall of the Roman Empire. Set in England, the tragic story concerns the forbidden love between a courageous English knight and a beautiful Irish princess. James Franco and Sophia Myles generate considerable chemistry together in the leading roles; enough battles are included to please most action fans; and the impressive painterly look of the film suits its mythic subject matter.
“Tristan is the classic tragic hero who becomes torn between loyalty to his king and the overpowering love for this woman,” Franco (The Great Raid) explains. “His tragedy consists of those two warring sides of loyalty.”
Isolde’s father, an Irish King (David Patrick O’Hara), has been menacing the warlords of England and keeping them in line with brutal methods. In a skirmish between the two groups, it’s assumed that Tristan has been killed, but he washes ashore in Ireland -- and Isolde finds him. Myles (Underworld) describes Isolde as a part of the royal family and desperate for freedom. “She also has a very spiritual side and gets a sense that a big change is about to happen in her life. One day she finds a man washed up on the beach, shipwrecked. She falls in love with him at first sight.”
Tristan returns Isolde’s love as she nurses him back to health. Unfortunately, Isolde does not give Tristan her real name --which turns out to be a BIG mistake. When he returns to England, Tristan becomes the champion of Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), the man who lost a hand while saving him from being killed by the Irish when he was a child. Lord Marke wants to unite the various English tribes into one nation and needs Tristan’s help in a contest set up by the Irish King, who offers Isolde as the prize. Imagine Tristan’s surprise when Isolde turns out to be the woman who helped him in Ireland. And Isolde’s -- upon learning that Tristan has won her for Lord Marke, not for himself.
After Isolde weds Lord Marke, she and Tristan try to hide their passion for each other, but if they managed to succeed, they wouldn’t have become a legend, now would they? If this plot sounds familiar to you, it should. You’ve probably heard a similar story about King Arthur, Quinevere, and Sir Lancelot.
Not to worry. Tristan & Isolde holds its own because Franco and Myles make us believe their characters share a love that will not die. Their romantic scenes alternate between tender and passionate; and, with the help of a sensitive screenplay by Dean Georgaris (The Manchurian Candidate), some of their interactions are quite poignant. Even though I knew the ending would be a sad one, I yearned for Tristan and Isolde to find happiness.
Director Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo), production designer Mark Geraghty (In America) and cinematographer Arthur Rhinehart (Nothing) followed producer Ridley Scott’s (Gladiator) example by working hard to give this film a unique look -- from its breathtaking views of the West Coast of Ireland to its grimy close-ups inside gloomy castles. Reynolds and Rhinehart wisely agreed on a very dark, grey and silver saturated appearance for the story. “We wanted a richness on film that matched the depth of the emotions of the characters, and also to infuse the picture with a distinct feel of what the Dark Ages must have been like,” says Rhinehart. Mission accomplished!
Intensely romantic and artistically photographed, Tristan & Isolde emerges as a welcome quality release during the January movie doldrums.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated “PG-13” for intense battle sequences and some sexuality.)
Photo: © 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.