The US film industry does not have a great track record when it comes to tackling historical subjects, and is even worse when it attempts popular myths and legends.
In recent years, big budget productions such as King Arthur, Troy and Kingdom of Heaven have received a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences alike. Perhaps tired of Hollywood’s continual tinkering with the plot, people appear to have become turned off by these kinds of films.
All this does not bode well for Tristan and Isolde, a long cherished project of Tony and Ridley Scott (Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven). However, under the direction of Kevin Reynolds, best known for Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and The Count of Monte Cristo, the film is at least in capable hands.
Based on a popular British myth, it is a dark age tale of star-crossed lovers, duty, political intrigue and revenge. The film charts the story of Tristan (James Franco), whose family is murdered by the Irish. He’s taken in and raised by Lord Marke, King of Cornwall (Rufus Sewell). The king is struggling to unite British tribes fighting against Irish dominance, and he uses Tristan’s skills as a warrior to pursue this end.
Tristan meets and falls passionately in love with Isolde (Sophia Myles) an Irish Princess. However, unbeknownst to him, Tristan wins her hand in a tournament on behalf of Lord Marke. This sets the scene for epic battles, royal intrigue and of course an obligatory love triangle.
Sophia Myles is beautiful and ethereal, imbuing Isolde with an earthy passion and a longing for more freedom than her position allows her. She even manages to hold her Irish accent fairly well, and it’s nice to see the love interest given a bit more to do than simply look pretty. Rufus Sewell is first-rate as Lord Marke, out classing almost everyone else on the screen. However, the true revelation is Bronagh Gallagher as Bragnae, Isolde’s nurse and companion. Both funny and moving, she steals every scene she’s in.
Unfortunately the plot asks too much from James Franco. He broods, frowns and pouts his heart out, but fails to convince, and in fact the whole film is at its weakest during the sequences between the two lovers. For it to be really moving it would have been necessary to believe that Tristan was truly torn between his love for Isolde and his sense of duty to his king, but this isn’t quite captured.
However, Franco is at his best during the fight sequences, and makes a surprisingly good action hero. The whole film is much more successful during the battles, and it’s nice to see real men fighting face to face for a change, with little recourse to CGI.
Ultimately this film fails to convince you of the grand passion between Tristan and Isolde, and this makes the second half of the film very hard to buy into. Having said that, there’s much to enjoy here, and it’s good to see at least that the legend has not been tampered with too much.