TRISTAN & ISOLDE
Review by Mark Wiechman
Stars: James Franco, Sophia Myles, Thomas Sangster
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Audio: DTS, Dolby Digital, Dolby Stereo, English & Spanish subtitles
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Special Features: See review
Length: 125 minutes
Release date: April 25, 2006
"How many did you love before me?"
"And after me?"
One of the oldest love-story legends, the Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde predates that of Romeo and Juliet as the trailer for this new adaptation claims, and may be one of the inspirations for the Arthurian love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenevere.
Probably the most famous version is the 19th century opera by Richard Wagner, which changed music forever by essentially abandoning key signatures and tonality itself, with chords floating like masses of sound that defied conventional music theory and analysis. That opera was an old story told in a new radical way.
This movie version is far easier to digest, though not nearly as passionate or memorable. The special features for this release show a talented but overwhelmed production team and director. They lacked the vision and (to hear them tell it) the budget to do it the way they wanted. They had to constantly fight the elements while filming in remote areas of Ireland, but none of that is an excuse for the film’s shortcomings. While the music is nice, it is underwhelming and often generic. The cinematography is wonderful, but the emotions of the characters, other than Sophia Myles as Isolde (who is magnificently beautiful and passionate beginning to end) are not believable. In particular, when Tristan surprisingly comes back to Briton, and greets Marke and other loved ones, no one even seems surprised. Surely even the coldest hearts in the coldest lands would be more shocked and excited at the return of a hero presumed dead.
The plot is fairly simple. Following the Roman withdrawal from what was then called “Briton,” the tribes of the island cannot get along, and the Irish king plunders them routinely at will. During a battle with the Irish, our hero Tristan is presumed dead from poison on a blade that struck him, and he is placed on a boat and cast out to sea in the traditional pagan burial rite for kings. The boat is set aflame but does not burn completely (for whatever reason). Tristan washes up on the Irish shore where Isolde, the daughter of the Irish king, finds him and nurses him back to health in secret. Isolde and Tristan do fall in love naturally (no potion as in many versions of the tale) and Tristan sails back to Briton, presumably never to see his love again. But then Tristan wins a bride for Marke, his kinsman and tribal ruler, and the bride turns out to be Isolde. Thus the entire tale is clearly an ancestor of the Arthurian legend.
It is a shame that this version falls flat, but I blame mostly poor direction. The screenplay is very good, and flows well with good pacing and editing of the film overall, but I can’t take most of the portrayals seriously. The worst part is that James Franco is a nice looking chap, but very boring and can’t be taken seriously in this role. He has no accent at all. With more preparation and direction he might have been very good.
Sophia has a heavy accent and her beauty is surpassed by her acting chops. Her character actually has passion and interest. Rufus Sewell as Lord Marke gives a bland performance, and is not believable as a leader of anyone or a warrior. He is not cold enough to be hated nor charming enough to care about. He only changes the inflection of his voice when he loses his temper but his face hardly changes expression once in the whole film. Considering the film is over two hours, by the halfway mark we know all is doomed and we don’t care.
Another problem with this film is that the bar for fantasy films has been raised very high due to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I also can’t help compare the fight scenes in this film with the recent HBO miniseries Rome in which the fighting is so fierce and believable that even Tony Soprano would tremble. This film clearly overwhelmed the people in charge, and miscasts did not help. The staggering attention to detail and passion in the LOTR is the new standard for fantasy, and HBO specials continue to have great drama, so anything short of them is…well, short.
On a lighter note, young Tristan is played wonderfully by the young Thomas Sangster who charmed us as Liam Neeson's son in Love Actually.
No artifacts or other problems I can see, dark scenes (which is half the movie) work fine, so clearly the camera crew and editors knew their stuff. The overall blandness of it all though prevents it from being rated higher.
DTS sounds wonderful, but often the dialogue is lost in the mix, and the soundtrack is only functional. The other mixes are adequate but not spectacular.
Commentaries by screenwriter Dean Georgaris commentary by Executive producer Jim Lemley and Anne Lai are useful but Georgaris provides far more information and is more entertaining. He reveals, for instance, that he was already writing this project when he saw Gladiator and realized that he had to change some things since that movie used some of the same ideas. Lemley just sounds tired in his commentary and actually has trouble remembering some details. Clearly, as he mentions also in the Featurette “Love Conquers All: the Making of Tristan + Isolde” this was a huge project which may have gotten away from him and the other producers.
Other features include three Image Galleries, many trailers, and a nice music video by Gavin DeGraw “We Belong Together” (longer and shorter versions) mainly consisting of vignettes from the film.
The behind the scenes featurette is illuminating but told by a rather cold bunch. The movie was very difficult to make, especially during filming in remote parts of Ireland. I watched this part before the movie itself, and almost did not want to watch it after seeing this featurette!
A wonderful showcase of Sophia Myles’ talent and beauty, but a film which overall falls very short of today’s expectations for fantasy and adventure films. A fantastic legend and good screenplay deserved a better treatment.