Tristan & Isolde

Jan 18, 2006 at 12:00 am

Literature and legend are rife with young lovers tragically undone by war, politics and cruel fate. Director Baz Luhrmann understood that the naïveté of teenagers in love is a force to be reckoned with. It was his hysterical sense of melodrama and cinematic hyperbole that turned Romeo + Juliet into a minor box office hit in 1996. Whatever their limitations with the language of the Bard, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes effectively captured the wretchedness of adolescent romance gone awry.

It's a shame then that the latest addition to this genre from director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Waterworld, The Count of Monte Cristo) is more interested in sweaty sword-bearing guys than the thwarted desires of medieval teenagers. Though handsomely produced and occasionally thrilling, this film is, at best, a mediocre action flick.

Based on a Celtic legend from the Dark Ages, this tale of doomed love was said to be the inspiration for the legend of King Arthur and Guinevere, the aforementioned Romeo + Juliet and Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde. Set in the years following the Roman Empire's fall, it charts the tragic life and love of English knight Tristan (James Franco), the adopted son of Lord Marke of Cornwall (Rufus Sewell). A kind and just ruler, Marke struggles to unite the fractured tribes of England against brutal incursions by the Irish.

When Tristan is wounded in battle and mistaken for dead, he's given a burial at sea. His body washes up on the Irish shore and is discovered by Isolde (Sophia Myles), the king's daughter. While nursing him back to health in secret, the two fall in love — but fate is unkind. When the king's forces close in, the young knight must flee without his flaxen-haired sweetie.

The Irish king then stages a contest for his daughter's hand. With a court full of turncoats, the enemy waiting at the gates and the future of England in the balance, the film asks: Will the couple's clandestine affair survive? The answer, unfortunately, is, "Who cares?"

Franco and Myles are so lacking in charisma or chemistry that their relationship fails to convince or excite. In place of lust or yearning, we get forlorn gazes and petulant brows. There are no delicate romantic moments, just perfunctory shots of Isolde reading poetry while a dewy-eyed Tristan purses his lips. In fact, Reynolds seems so impatient to get back to his lush landscapes, swordfights and court intrigue that the lovers become supporting players in their own story.

This would be fine if the story were a Braveheart-like accounting of Lord Marke's political trials and travails — but it's not. Without the intensity of ruined love, the tragedy of Tristan & Isolde never seems particularly tragic, just a bit unfortunate — much like the adaptation of this wonderful myth.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].