Tristan & Isolde
Starring: James Franco, Sophia Myles, Rufus Sewell
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Fax: 2005, adventure
(Los Angeles, California) Great, now Hollywood's handing out homework. "Tristan & Isolde" may not be quite as tedious as a weekend assignment to read the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson or Thomas Malory, but it's close.
The story of these two lovers predates Lancelot and Guinevere or Romeo and Juliet, and their grandly tragic romance packs as much longing and dramatic pedigree as those tales, at least from a literary standpoint.
Yet the names — Tristan, the shining knight of Britain, Isolde, the fair princess of Ireland — do not resonate today the way those others do, the Arthurian love triangle and Shakespeare's passion play benefiting from endless populist incarnations on screen, stage and the page.
Tristan and Isolde have been relegated to the dusty text bin, their story living on mainly through the works of Tennyson and Malory or the opera by Richard Wagner.
Ridley Scott, an executive producer on the movie along with brother Tony, had long considered directing "Tristan & Isolde" himself but has had his fill of historical epics in recent years with the blockbuster "Gladiator" and the dud "Kingdom of Heaven."
Scott turned screenwriter Dean Georgaris' version over to director Kevin Reynolds ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"), who fails to inject much ardor. The action plays out with a ponderous air of doom and self-importance that the beautiful but bland leads — James Franco and Sophia Myles — cannot sustain.
The movie offers occasional images as pretty as ancient, intricate though dusty tapestry. Cinematographer Arthur Reinhart, the costumers and set designers apparently were under orders to keep everything, stark, dark, dingy and drab.
There are many variations to the Tristan and Isolde legend, the filmmakers opting for a straightforward knight-meets-damsel account stripped of the magical trappings permeating earlier renditions.
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Parents slain by Irish raiders in the dark times after the Roman Empire's collapse has left Britain a rat's nest of feuding lords, Tristan (Franco) grows up the devoted ward of Marke (Rufus Sewell), the land's best hope for unity under a single king.
Presumed killed himself in a skirmish with Irish thugs, Tristan actually washes ashore in Ireland, where Isolde (Myles), daughter of the island's conniving King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara), nurses him back to health.
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Naturally, they fall in love, but Tristan must flee for home to avoid capture by Donnchadh's henchmen. He returns to win the hand of Donnchadh's daughter for Marke in a tournament, Tristan unaware until he's victorious that the prize he'll deliver to his foster father is Isolde.
What follows is an uninspired variant of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot fiasco, punctuated by moments of tepid battle and intrigue as Donnchadh schemes to put England under the Irish boot heel once and for all.
Students of Ireland's long fight to break free of Britain may find an ironic chuckle or two in the Englishmen's laments about shaking off their Irish tyrants.
Most of the dialogue, though, is shallow bluster made more anemic through the actors' whispery delivery, a few lines sinking to laughable sappiness. ("Why does loving you feel so wrong?" Isolde blathers with the air-headed giddiness of a bad AM pop song.)
Franco looks good on the movie poster but has little presence as Tristan, aiming for a Dark Ages take on the cool aloofness of his "James Dean" TV movie and tossing off his lines in dreary monotones. His chaotic hair style also at times leaves Franco with an unfortunate resemblance to Napoleon Dynamite.
Myles fairs better, not exactly setting pulses aquiver but at least infusing Isolde with a fetching blend of allure and purity. She also has nice comic support from Bronagh Gallagher (best known as one of the backup singers in "The Commitments") as Isolde's dotingly overprotective lady in waiting.
Those few highlights aside, as trysts go, "Tristan & Isolde" will linger in your memory about as long as one of your fleeting junior-high crushes.
*Review by David Fermain, Associated Press
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