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Tristan & Isolde   C

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Writer: Dean Georgaris
Cast: James Franco, Sophia Myles, Rufus Sewell, David Patrick O'Hara, Henry Cavill, JB Blanc, Thomas Sangster.

Review by Rob Vaux

For all its fecklessness, its superficiality, and its boring slog through would-be romance, it's hard to be too angry at Tristan & Isolde. If nothing else, it mainlines a classic tale into the brains of tweener girls, and might even inspire them to hunt down some version of the Arthurian original when they're done. The film is clearly marketed at the starry-eyed junior-high set, who can swoon at the sight of James Franco's unruly hair and cheer as Irish princess Sophia Myles tells dad where he can stick that poopy old arranged marriage. If it can bring a crowd like that closer to actual literature, then it has accomplished a great deal of genuine good.

On the other hand, it's not much to speak of as a movie. Director Kevin Reynolds brings a ploddingly literal approach to the tale of star-crossed lovers, and while there are a few bright spots (it's nice seeing Rufus Sewell play something other than a total creep), the majority is turgid and glum. It takes liberties of course -- though that is easy to forgive, since the original story has multiple variations -- but the results never fire the imagination or add any insight beyond the most perfunctory. Mostly, it just marks time.

Reynolds establishes the setting as a pleasant mix of evocative historicism and fairy-tale balderdash. His world of warring kingdoms and troubled rulers feels just authentic enough to get by, provided one doesn't look too closely at the details. The atmosphere is cool and green, with a nice dash of the pastoral to cover up the Dark Ages' less savory aspects. Into this landscape comes our errant lovers, he the ward of England's Lord Marke (Sewell), she the daughter of Ireland's King Donnechadh (David Patrick O'Hara). Left for dead following a brutal battle, Tristan drifts west in a funeral boat, where he is found on the Irish shore and secretly nursed back to health by Isolde. Florence Nightingale syndrome immediately kicks in, and soon they're rutting like rabbits while the king's men scour the countryside for him. He eludes them and returns to England -- only to be sent back as part of a tournament intended to seal peace between the two kingdoms. By vanquishing his rivals on the field, he wins Isolde's hand, but -- O cruel irony! -- not for himself. He is Lord Marke's champion, and as such, the fair lassie is destined for his master's bridal bed.

From there, things get kind of awkward.

The dilemma is tremendous, and with it, the film holds a fluttering sense of dramatic potential within its grasp. The best moments are facilitated by Sewell, whose character is both wise and good, and whose unwitting presence between the lovers prompts a very thoughtful crisis of loyalty. Unfortunately, the leads themselves never find the right tone. Myles' heartfelt speeches are too corny to be really moving, while Franco adopts a single pained expression that makes him look like he's constantly passing gas. The pair is appropriately nubile and generates some mild heat, but the contrived plot of political schemes and attempted coups quickly overwhelms them. The Irish are presented as unflinchingly brutal, while the English are merely fractious and divided: a show of favoritism that tilts our sympathies unduly in one direction. There is little attempt at humor, and while Reynolds delivers some decent "on-a-budget" action scenes, they contribute nothing beyond a few moments of dramatic progression.

For the undemanding, however, it all goes down smoothly enough, and though the moments drag by, they're not entirely bereft of interest. Reynolds never aims high enough to lose control of the proceedings, and his workmanlike efforts are certainly an improvement over many January releases. But he never finds the spark to really bring this story to life, and anyone looking for more than the most superficial entertainment is bound to be disappointed. Some of it may be timing -- with love stories like King Kong and Brokeback Mountain in theaters, a traditional Arthurian romance may seem a tad pedestrian. On the other hand, this couple has endured for over 900 years; the least Tristan & Isolde could have done is show us a reason why.

Review published 01.13.2006.

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