Imagine the Hollywoodese they used to get this one greenlit: “It’s Romeo and Juliet meets Braveheart!” — a not entirely fraudulent way to describe the story of star-crossed English Tristan and Irish Isolde, lovers in Merry Olde Before-It-Was-England. This story itself owes more to Greek tragedy than romance, but you wouldn’t know it by the number of teenaged girls sobbing through the film, reacting to a calamity that could have been avoided at any of a half-dozen points in the narrative by either lover simply telling the truth. But that quibble seems beside the point to the weeping masses of would-be Isoldes of Encino. Indeed, I’d worry about dropping a spoiler but for the fact that the phrase “star-crossed lovers” pretty much takes care of that. It’s an oft-told tale, whose ending cannot be in doubt if you’ve managed to graduate 7th grade: They’re Doomed Lovers, so you already know how it’s going to end; the artistry (or lack thereof) thus lies in the telling, not in any pretense of suspense.
In the studio version of the legend, Tristan (James Franco) is an English prince raised by Britain’s powerful Lord Marke, after his parents are offed by the Irish. Tristan, understandably, isn’t a fan of the of the leprechaun community, but when he’s launched out to sea, half dead, and rescued by Isolde (Sophia Myles) — a dirty, damn Irish woman — he’s forced to reconsider. Unfortunately, without a 13th Century Dr. Phil to dispense relationship advice, Tristan and Isolde fall madly in love until Tristan’s allegiance to England eventually forces him to flee. Fatefully, the two don’t lay eyes on one another again until he’s inadvertently won her marital services on behalf of Lord Marke.
Though liberties have been taken, the history portrayed in this version of T & I may come as a surprise to those who prefer to see the Irish at the perpetual mercy of the English; to the contrary, it took centuries for the warring factions of Britannia to coalesce into a unit strong enough to shake off the tyrannical Irish. Imagine, if you will, the chagrin of one feisty, vainglorious Irishwoman on finding herself with tearstained cheeks on behalf of the English, of all people. … Still, regardless of alterations in historical minutiae, I can recommend watching the film for purely educational purposes alone. That, and you couldn’t ask for a better reason to spend the next two months of your life with a lilting brogue.
Personally, I loved this movie. True, it has its faults — a few almost unforgivable, most notably in the casting department (and while nobody loves a sweater more than I, the parade of Irish knitwear traipsing across the screen really ought to have been punctuated by the occasional diverting nod to leather or brocade, for God’s sake). But there are also some wonderful casting choices that demand notice: As Isolde, Sophia Myles acquits herself beautifully. What a relief to find a mythic beauty portrayed by someone who actually has more in her favor than mere comeliness. While avoiding the anachronistic, fiery feminist caricature, Myles manages to display the protean intelligence and passions one can readily believe of any woman, regardless of circumstance or era.
Unfortunately, James Franco as Tristan is as unappealing as a painfully handsome man could possibly be. Remember a few years ago when Franco snagged the part of James Dean in some miniseries about the doomed antihero’s antihero? He was supposed to be the next Great Actor, the hope of a generation. And while he does lay claim to a certain above-average chunk of talent, one suspects Franco’s pouting good looks blinded many who ought to have known better; throw this one onto the Vanity Fair-covers-of-the-next-big-thing-that-wasn’t pile with Gretchen Mol and Orlando Bloom. Indeed, Franco shares an unpalatable trait with another woefully miscast actor of this generation: Like poor, overburdened Hayden Christensen, Franco’s talents are insufficient to the task of playing an archetypal hero. Instead of tragic, admirable honor, what he conveys is mostly an insufferable adolescent inability to see past his own nose. True, the role is a difficult one in that Tristan is, for the most part, insufferably adolescent in his worldview as regards honor, duty and sacrifice. But Franco certainly brings nothing to the portrayal to mitigate that insufferability.
It certainly does nothing to help raise Tristan in our esteem that the part of his generous, brave, loving guardian (Lord Marke) is played by the superb Rufus Sewell. Franco can only suffer by contrast to the well-seasoned actor. Sewell is once again cast (as he so often is) as the also-ran, but — unfortunately for Tristan and the story itself — his strength of character and elegance only serve to accentuate the ungainly inadequacy of his charge.
Kevin Reynolds directed the film, and I think it’s fair to say he may finally have overcome the Robin Hood debacle, if not Waterworld. The world needs its share of directors who qualify as neither hack nor auteur, and journeymen like Reynolds serve quite admirably in that capacity. There is something to be said for a serviceable offering of form and function in the art of film; Tristan and Isolde may not scale the heights of visual or narrative ecstasy, but neither does it plumb the depths of cliche and accountability to none but the lowest of common denominators. After all, mediocrity is nothing to be ashamed of in a world populated with music video directors with only a passing acquaintanceship with narrative; “mediocre” means, literally, “halfway up the mountain.” So, perhaps Reynolds hasn’t reached the peak of cinematic perfection, but then again, he’s not wallowing in the valley of the shadow of the music video. Tristan and Isolde is, in spite of a few cringeworthy missteps, a more than moderately enjoyable journey into a world of adventure, history and courtly love — punctuated by just the barest hint of naked, panting eros — and it’s a better world for it, I say.
Maryscott O’Connor is a guest contributor to Pajiba and publisher of the liberal weblog My Left Wing. She lives in Los Angeles.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()