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Tristan & Isolde

Director: Kevin Reynolds
Cast: James Franco, Sophia Myles, Rufus Sewell, David Patrick O'Hara, Henry Cavill

(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 13 Jan 2006; 2006)

Take Me to the River

Pity poor Tristan. Long-haired, nubile, and eager to please, he seeks a consuming passion, but is fated to fall limp in the arms of a girl who can’t make up her mind. He means well. But in this version of Tristan & Isolde, every good turn the young knight endeavors to make turns tragic.


Tristan’s story (which has roots in the sixth century but is here made medieval) begins with the child up against it. As the opening crawl informs, the Dark Ages mean the Roman Empire has collapsed and the Irish, in order to maintain a precarious power, seek to keep the British tribes - the Anglos, the Saxons, the Kurds—from uniting. Orphaned during an Irish raid, Tristan (played as a child by Thomas Sangster) is raised by his forward-thinking uncle, Lord Marke of Cornwall (Rufus Sewell, who’s made a habit of playing “the other man” in period dramas), who thinks he might led the Britons to victory, if only they’d fall in behind him. Other tribes-guys are, of course, disinclined to so fall in, though they agree to try a plan laid out by Tristan (now grow up to be James Franco, who played another military planner in The Great Raid), in which they deceive and briefly beat back the enemy.


One thing, though: Tristan is killed by a poisoned blade wielded by a big bald brute named Morholt (Graham Mullins), then set to drift by his admiring fellows on a burning bier with the memorable words, “Farewell to Tristan of Aragon. Death to the Irish!”


Go figure: following a few days afloat, Tristan washes up on Irish shores, where he’s nursed back to health by none other than the daughter of big bad King Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara) himself, the rambunctious Isolde (Sophia Myles). And darned if she hadn’t been given by her father—against her will—to the very same ugly bald warrior Morolt, whom Tristan killed while he thought himself killed. Not that she’s about to reveal any of this information to her guest, whom she keeps in a shack by the sea as he heals, so she can admire his lovely body and fall in love with him (“I think it’s better we don’t bother with names,” she says, unwilling to give hers up, though he announces his boldly). They exchange firelit gazes and she reads him John Donne (“My face in thine eyes, thine in mine appears”), quite miraculously, as Donne doesn’t actually write those words until the 17th century.


Alas their idyll must end when daddy’s men start searching for the rival knight. “They’ll find you,” Isolde frets, “They find everyone.” And so Tristan once again sails forth on a boat, this time with a mutual declaration of love, and an agreement that “This cannot be.”


They’re right and not right. This almost must be, else the tragedy of Tristan is lost. Almost as soon as Tristan has landed back home, bad King Donnchadh decides to pimp out his now fiancé-less daughter once more, this time to the winner of a contest among the British tribesmen, hoping to divide them because she is such a grand prize. Tristan wins her for Marke; she’s horrified to learn her husband is not Tristan, just as he’s horrified to learn she is the princess Isolde. After the marriage, they can’t help themselves: Tristan dissolves in depression, only rejuvenated when they agree to tryst in secret. According to the Tristan legend cycle (that his movie does not follow), Tristan retrieves her from Ireland and en route to Britain, they ingest a love potion that drives them to adultery, here, their passion seems more a matter of seductive glances across crowded parties (lots of parties in this court) and heavy breathing in soft-filtered close-ups, like they’re on The O.C.


At the same time, Isolde, now future Queen of England, becomes rather fond of Marke. In his own mopey way, he’s a kind soul, sincerely yearning to make her love him, despite the fact that he is, in his own mind, unwhole, since he lost his hand during a run-in with the Irish, and has since sported a metallic fake hand. Though this hand hardly matters in the film’s plot, apparently it makes Marke especially jealous of Tristan, when he learns—as he must—that the lovers have betrayed him.


Not as antic or silly as his Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Kevin Reynolds’ return to the realm of noble knights, ardent damsels, and grim scoundrels is melodramatic and anachronistic. In between his star-making battles, Tristan worries about his treachery, while Isolde schemes to get just what she wants. Indeed, her seemingly incidental cruelty is the film’s most disturbing factor. Indeed, her seemingly incidental cruelty is the film’s most disturbing factor. While it might be chalked up to her royalty (she’s never had to care much about anyone’s feelings, a tendency demonstrated in her carelessness with her sensible maid, Bragnae [Bronagh Gallagher]), the movie doesn’t actually give her seeming selfishness a context.


But as this soapy structure only makes the medieval setting gloomier, the film’s most salient problem is Franco. Another of those lovely young actors who have appeared in several films and haven’t yet found a defining role or a following (see also: Orlando Bloom), he’s hardly helped by the utter lack of voltage with Myles. Still, his performance here is depressingly affectless, as if he’s been instructed to let the dark-circled eye makeup denote his presumably complex emotional travails. But if Tristan is apparently carried along by his relationship with this inexplicably addictive girl, the effects are conveniently lacking when he’s called on to swash and buckle. And then, well, it’s back to swooning, his dark eyes and buckled figure timeworn emblems of adolescent love gone wrong. That, and, he’s got this mortal wound in his side.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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