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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
An Epic Romance
by Diana Saenger

Almost everyone knows about the passionate love between Romeo and Juliet and the legendary romance between King Arthur and Guinevere, but only a few are aware of the mythic tale of Tristan & Isolde. This movie, based on a Celtic fable, begins in England after the fall of Rome and during a time when England is struggling to find its own foothold. Standing in the way is Donnchadh, a domineering Irish King who controls the land with a firm hand and merciless warriors.

Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) wants to keep his English tribes united to eventually fight the King (David Patrick O’Hara) for their own land. The first scene of Tristan & Isolde shows a brutal Irish invasion where most of Lord Marke’s family and nearly all of the tribes people are slain. Tristan, a small boy (Thomas Sandster), witnessed it all, including watching his own parents savagely murdered. Lord Marke immediately takes him in and raises him to become an honest and loyal crusader for the cause of England’s freedom.

Years have passed, and the region has once again grown strong. Tristan (James Franco) is now a knight ready to do battle beside his Lord. Underneath all of Tristan’s goodness, lies a torment of anger. He wants to avenge the deaths of his parents and is willing to take on all of Ireland to do it.  But when the Irish invade again, Tristan is presumed dead and as custom dictates, his “body” is set out to sea. Tristan’s boat drifts to the Irish shore where he’s found by Isolde (Sophia Myles), the daughter of King Donnchadh. Promised to wed a brutal warrior, she is uptight with her father’s control and yearns to be free to discover life on her own terms.

Isolde’s governess (Bronagh Gallagher) manages to keep her on solid ground until the day she discovers the young man in the boat and nurses him back to life. Tristan and Isolde, known to Tristan by a different name, fall passionately in love during his healing, but Isolde knows her father will kill Tristan instantly if he finds him. Once he’s well, she sends him back to England.

Now Tristan has two reasons to defeat the Irish King. When Isolde’s betrothed is killed in the skirmish with the English, Donnchadh devises a trick. He offers the hand of Isolde to one of the English barons who will fight each other for her. He plans later to use the union as a way to invade the British lands.

A host of young knights enter the competition. Tristan goes to fight for Lord Marke, who lost a hand in the early Irish invasion. Tristan wins the fight, but is devastated when he discovers his surrogate father’s new bride will be Isolde, the woman he loves. “Marke not only loves her, but he loves Tristan, his surrogate son, so it becomes a terrible love triangle between them,” explains Sewell (The Legend of Zorro).

Isolde is beside herself. She arrives to wed Lord Marke with a broken heart and a plea to Tristan to fix things. He knows he cannot change what is done, nor can he hurt the man who saved his life and raised him. Only after the wedding is complete does Tristan succumb to Isolde’s desires, and the two sneak away to consummate their love at every opportunity.

Producers Tony Scott and Ridley Scott (brothers) became fascinated by the material about a tragic love affair that could never be. Ridley Scott, who intended to direct it himself, worked on the idea for several years. Once a screenplay was written by Dean Georgaris (The Manchurian Candidate), Scott invited Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo) to handle the directing duties.

Although Reynolds didn’t find favor with his epic Waterworld, his historical themed films such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Rapa Nui and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves have helped him learn how to create compelling worlds of warring nations in earlier centuries. Set designer Mark Geraghty and costumer Maurizio Millenotti excel at making the period look authentic.

The casting, somewhat uneven, may be the film’s biggest downfall. Franco (The Great Raid), who -- like much of the cast -- had to undergo horse, sword and bow & arrow training, fits his part well. His performance in the second half of the film seems too mild mannered considering the strain Tristan is under, but I feel this may be a lack of character development in the script. Myles (Underworld) is pretty, but she adds little other than that to the film. Sewell projects Lord Marke’s subtle misery quite effectively, and O’Hara’s Irish King comes across as grand in his evilness.

Tristan & Isolde is a good romance with plenty of adventure and battles to entertain both sexes.

(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated “PG-13” for intense battle sequences and some sexuality.)

Read Diana Saenger’s reviews of classic films at

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