Tristan & Isolde


Aware that those not up on their Wagner operas may not be familiar with the title tragic lovers in Tristan & Isolde, movie posters helpfully explain that the two are star-crossed predecessors to Romeo and Juliet. Then the ad’s designers give up on context and pull in close on the pretty faces of Spider-Man‘s James Franco and Sophia Myles (soon to be seen more groovily in Art School Confidential), hoping that generic contemporary hotness will sell tickets.

Not that I can suggest any better come-on for such a serious, old-fashioned, history-heavy romance. The epic is based on the ancient legend of an Irish princess who loved an English knight at a time in the Dark Ages when the uneasy tribes of Britain — those squabbling Jutes, Angles, Picts, Saxons, and Celts — scowled belligerently at the dominant kingdom of Ireland. When Tristan first meets Isolde in this sturdy, steady, pleasantly unspectacular telling, he’s been left for dead in battle and she nurses him — and loves him — without revealing her royal identity. When next they meet, she’s the surprise ”prize” wife donated as political bait by her own scheming father to the winner of a tribes-of-Britain gladiatorial showdown, won by an unsuspecting Tristan on behalf of his kind protector, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell). Torn loyalties, treacherous schemes, broken hearts, and bloody battles follow. Also featured: a few romantic interludes, and many moments when Franco’s Tristan gazes like a rebel with a cause, handsomely miserable with tears in his eyes.

A movie based on this grand legend has long been a great notion of moviemaking brothers Ridley and Tony Scott. In the end, though, they stuck to executive-producing duties and handed direction to Kevin Reynolds, a man used to costume drama after The Count of Monte Cristo, Waterworld, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Working with an explanatory script by Dean Georgaris, Reynolds is much more confident in scenes of realistic battle, or even muddy marketplace dailiness, than he is with scenes of desire. For that, Wagner’s still the maestro.

Tristan & Isolde
  • Movie
  • 125 minutes