Saturday, April 22, 2006

TRISTAN + ISOLDE - rather leaden sword-swinging romance

TRISTAN + ISOLDE* all starts promisingly enough, centred as it is on an epic tragic romance. With a story as strong as Romeo and Juliet it is fairly hard NOT to grab the audience's interest. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, mainland Britain has splintered into warring factions and thus remains weak and at the mercy of the marauding Irish king. In one nasty blood-letting, young Tristan loses both his parents, and is adopted by Lord Marke - ruler of Cornwall. Fast forward nine years, and Tristan is now a brave warrior, loyal to his saviour. He leads the Cornish in a rout of the Irish but is presumed dead when battle ends. Sent off in a funeral boat he washes up in Ireland where Isolde, the daughter of the Irish king, nurses him back to health in secret. They fall in love, but he does not know who she is. The Irish are now on the run, but the king comes up with a cunning plan to divide the Brits. Each tribe will compete for the hand of his daughter. Tristan wins Isolde for Lord Marke, and now comes the real point of the story. Will Tristan and Isolde forsake their love in order to maintain peace between the Irish and British behind the new King Marke?

This movie gets a lot right - as one would expect from the director of ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES. The production and costume design is great and the cast is largely made up of superb British and Irish character actors. The script is fine for the most part, and while some have complained about the anachronistic use of a poem by Donne, I have no problem with that, for it expresses perfectly the emotions of Isolde. Where I think the movie falls down badly is in the casting of James Franco as Tristan. He stands around brooding and beautiful, which is nice for a while, but is hardly enough to convey the emotional and moral trauma Tristan is under-going. By contrast, Rufus Sewell is so brilliant as Lord Marke - combining the vulnerability of a man who has fallen in love late in life with the sheer heft of a warrior-king - that the audience is left somewhat surprised that Isolde has not simply transferred her affections to him! This is made all the more puzzling given that Sophie Myles successfully portrays Isolde as an intelligent and courageous woman. She seems perfectly matched with Marke. So, once the love triangle is established, the improbability of Isolde still being in love with Tristan weighs the movie down. It plods along is a rather leaden manner and finally expires in a fit of exhaustion after over two hours. This is a real shame.

TRISTAN+ISOLDE was released in the US in January 2006 and in the UK on Friday. It hits Germany on May 18th, Austria on May 19th and France on August 30th.
*This may well be the most stupidly titled movie of the year. Why not just Tristan AND Isolde?! Why the poncey use of the plus sign? When Baz Luhrmann did this with Romeo+Juliet it all had a point - Luhrmann was comprehensively re-imagining the story. Here it just smacks of being a bit too clever for its own good.

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