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Tristan and Isolde

After the recent film debacle that was King Arthur I must admit that the idea of another ancient Britain legend movie had me wary. Hollywood’s ability to take a perfectly good story and completely foul it up has never ceased to amaze me and I expected nothing less from Tristan and Isolde. Consider me somewhat pleasantly surprised.

The legend of Tristan and Isolde has roots going back as far as the thirteenth century, and like any good ancient tale there are many variations on the theme. In this retelling, Tristan is an English tirbal prince whose parents were killed by the marauding Irish when he was just a boy. Rescued and raised as a nephew by another noble. Lord Marke, he grows into a loyal warrior with a loathing for Ireland and a fierce love of his people and his adopted uncle. When a poisoned blow in battle renders him near-dead, he’s assumed deceased and his body is launched to sea aboard a small boat which eventually washes up on Ireland’s shore.

Isolde, the sole daughter of the Ireland’s king, happens upon the ailing Tristan and, not knowing who he is, secretly nurses him to health while pretending to be a simple handmaiden. Of course the two fall passionately in love but are quickly separated when Tristan is forced to flee to his homeland. The two accept that they will never see each other again. Meanwhile, in an effort to divide and conquer England’s lords, the Irish king offers up his daughter’s hand in marriage to the winner of an open tournament. Tristan enters and fights in Lord Marke’s name, unwittingly winning Isolde as a wife for his uncle. The cruel triangle that results forces all three to decide where their true loves and loyalties lie, a struggle that could destroy the fragile Briton kingdom.

While the lives and times of Tristan and Isolde predate William Wallace and the legends of King Arthur, the cinematic influences of films based on those stories are unmistakable. Stolen moments from Braveheart, First Knight and Romeo and Juliet abound but director Kevin Reynolds has clearly given the story and characters a life and identity of their own. At times it’s a battered life. The pace occasionally limps and leading man James Franco seems to stop trying half way through, but the movie stays the course and offers audiences something better than Hollywood rehash.

Sophia Myles, who has spent most of her young career playing supporting roles, finally gets her chance to shine. Her portrayal of Isolde is striking and impassioned, capturing all the pains and joys of a character torn in so many directions. Too bad the same can’t be said for her male counterpart. Despite pumping Tristan full of energy and emotion in the first act of the story, Franco loses his groove and descends into a flat lined pout fest that makes Hayden Christenson’s performance in Attack of the Clones look like Oscar material. Lucky for him the rest of the cast are there to pick up the pieces and carry the movie to a strong, if not abrupt, finale.

Lately, a PG-13 rating on this kind of movie suggests a director who is being held back by studio execs craving a teen-based audience, but I don’t get that vibe this time, despite all the ridiculous pop-culture marketing. The movie is about love in a medieval setting, so naturally the story circulates around sex and violence, but they aren’t translated into blood and nudity, but rather action and emotion. There’s an innocent beauty to the sensuality of Tristan and Isolde’s initial encounter which is replaced by quiet agony on Lord Marke and Isolde’s wedding night as a helpless Tristan departs the castle alone. Understanding that love and pain are expressed in the eyes, not the nipples and buttocks, Reynolds keeps the focus where it’s most important without copping out on the intensity of the moment. The battle and fight choreography leave something to be desired, but it has more to do with misguided camera work than a lack of carnage. The lackluster skirmishes are covered over by solid acting during the sequences, a far more important element. After all, this is more of a love story than a war movie. If it’s non-stop action and lots of blood you’re looking for, go watch Kill Bill.

While still a solid and enjoyable movie, Tristan and Isolde lacks the polish and finesse needed to be an outstanding film. Reynolds seems to have lost his footing a bit since his recent past success of The Count of Monte Cristo. At the very least, though, we can be thankful for a sufficiently original story line and a sword-swinging romantic lead that isn’t played by Orlando Bloom.