“Before Romeo and Juliet, there was Tristan and Isolde…,” goes the ad slogan, but if you’re at all familiar with the medieval tale of these “star-crossed” lovers, you won’t recognize much of it in Kevin Reynold’s splashy, big screen adaptation. What we have is a vehicle for up-and-coming hottie James Franco to strut his stuff in a romantic drama. It’s Kingdom of Heaven, only with a much better actor (sorry, Orlando). Tense battles and a believable performance from its star will appease both Franco-philes and action buffs — medieval historians seeking accuracy need not apply.
Franco plays Tristan, the adopted Britannic son of Lord Marke, who lost his parents during an attack from the Irish; Sophia Myles is Isolde, the daughter of Irish King Donnchadh. During a battle, Tristan is wounded, poisoned and believed to be dead. He’s given a proper burial at sea and his boat washes ashore on the Irish isle. Isolde, who keeps her true identity from him, secretly nurses the wounded soldier back to health. They fall in love, but because of the conflict between Ireland and Britannia — and the small fact that Isolde is already bethrothed — they reluctantly separate, believing they’ll never see each other again.
After the death of Isolde’s future husband, King Donnchadh holds a tournament for the Brits: the victor is rewarded with his daughter’s hand in marriage. Ironically, Tristan wins Isolde, not for himself, but on behalf of Lord Marke. Upon realizing Isolde’s identity and what’s he’s done, Tristan is beside himself. He tries stifling his love for Isolde, but to no avail. Soon, the two lovers rekindle their love, carrying on a torrid affair that threatens to destroy not only their relationships with Lord Marke, but an entire kingdom.
If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because the love triangle conceit permeates other stories as well: Sir Thomas Malory borrowed the idea for his own tale of Arthur and Guinevere, a story which has survived the test of time longer and become more popularized by today’s media junkies in schmaltzy, if entertaining, films like First Knight (1995).
So how does Tristan & Isolde measure up? Taken as a wannabe period romance, and not a grossly inaccurate divergence from its source material, Reynold’s film isn’t so bad at all, but an enjoyable popcorn flick in the same vein of A Knight’s Tale, with more gravitas pervading the entire affair. Some moments are pure cheese — a young Tristan laying carefully-choreographed smackdown on some unsuspecting kids early on — and some of the dialogue, which probably looked downright Shakespearean on paper, could have used a reality check:
(cue passionate lovemaking)
Isolde: How many have you loved before me?
Isolde: And after me?
Still, Tristan & Isolde’s smart editing means that dramatic scenes are balanced with rewarding duels, furious action sequences, and for all you Franco fans out there, just enough skin to make the price of admission worth it. Franco’s sensitive façade provides appropriate torment to Tristan’s ambivalent feelings as he watches Isolde in the arms of the king, knowing that their love is doomed. As fair Isolde, the soft-spoken Myles beckons the audience with a youthful twinkle in her eye and a sweet smile.
When the film reaches its tragic conclusion, you’re not necessarily disappointed, but left with the reaffirmed feeling that love is never simple, nor is it always kind. Nor, as in the case of Tristan and Isolde, is it meant to be.