2 stars (out of four)
If Philip Seymour Hoffman's whiny warble has been running through your mind all winter and you just can't seem to shake the "Brokeback Mountain" blues, then a bloody, star-crossed-lovers period piece set in the Dark Ages and starring that chick from "Thunderbirds" is the perfect (def: completely suited for a particular purpose or situation) January release.
Blurb that, Twentieth Century Fox!
Mindless, predictable and mildly entertaining, "Tristan & Isolde" is based on a Celtic myth that later became a Wagner opera, inspiring many a painter but never reaching the tragi-romance ubiquity of a "Romeo and Juliet." It did, however, catch the short attention spans of brothers Tony and Ridley Scott, who executive produce, and director Kevin Reynolds, he of "Waterworld" infamy.
There are countless iterations of "T&I, "but all revolve around the ill-fated love between an English knight and an Irish princess, the aforementioned Tristan and Isolde.
Orphaned in an Irish attack on his village, Tristan (James Franco) grows up under the tutelage of widowed Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), a kind and ambitious English tribal leader who sacrificed limb to save the boy. Owing his life to Marke and his anger to the Irish, Tristan becomes a fighter, defending his surrogate father's honor and trying his best to undermine the forces of Ireland's King Donnchadh.
One such violent undermining gets Tristan in a bit of a spot: He is stabbed by a poison-soaked dagger and left for dead--and that's not even the spot. Donnchadh's feisty, feminist daughter (Sophia Myles) finds him washed ashore in Ireland, nurses him back to health, and the two fall truly, madly, deeply in love. He's the guy who played James Dean on TNT--who wouldn't?
But get this: Tristan is loyal to Marke, so when Donnchadh sets up a little tournament in which the winner gets his daughter's hand in marriage--it's a scheme to pit the English warlords against one another--Tristan competes for his Lord, unaware that said prize is Isolde.
He wins. Marke gets a wife and Tristan gets a tragedy. It's quite the Celtic pickle.
If it sound like I'm being flip for a movie I previously called perfect, well, it's true. This is an unsurprising film, full of standard period-piece imagery--the funeral at sea, the floating, candlelit wedding processional--and predicaments. However, Reynolds' modest ambitions come as a relief after all the CGI absurdity of "Troy" and the like. (I'm fairly certain that the people fighting Tristan are actually people, not computer-generated mobs.) And it's decent enough escapist fun.
However--and this may be a big However if you're more educated in legend than I--Reynolds and company aren't terribly concerned with folklore, straying far from the famed Wagner account in which Tristan und Isolde drink a love potion, their romance sparked by magic, not passion. The rejiggering is clearly a bid to cash in on an already proven enterprise--"Before 'Romeo & Juliet' there was 'Tristan & Isolde'." goes the film's tagline--but I can't exactly plead traditionalism when I didn't know the story to begin with.
One change that I do applaud is the development of Marke's character. Sewell, a Shakespeare vet, has great presence on screen--handsome, steady, sympathetic. He's far more appealing than Franco, whom I still love from "Freaks and Geeks" but who feels a little too tormented here. His eyes are teared up the entire second half of the film. Also, if a bad hairdo could ever ruin a performance, his would do it.
But Marke is a Renaissance Man's Renaissance Man, pre-Renaissance--a noble chief who only wants to be a good husband to Isolde, a worthy role model for Tristan and a benevolent would-be king for his people. Unaware of T&I's impossible situation, Marke is not to blame--he's the tragic hero here. And his position in this whole mess is far more interesting than the pouty lovelorn duo's.
Too bad Isolde couldn't just fall for him and turn this whole timeless tale on its head. Now that would be perfect.
`Tristan and Isolde'
Directed by Kevin Reynolds; written by Dean Georgaris; photographed by Arthur Reinhart; production designed by Mark Geraghty; edited by Peter Boyle; music by Anne Dudley; produced by Lisa Ellzey, Giannina Facio, Moshe Diamant and Elie Samaha. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense battle sequences and some sexuality.
Tristan - James Franco
Isolde - Sophia Myles
Marke - Rufus Sewell
King Donnchadh - David Patrick O'Hara
Bragnae - Bronagh Gallagher