Thursday, May 2, 2013

Tristan and Isolde (2006)

Director: Kevin Reynolds                              Writer: Dean Georgaris
Film Score: Anne Dudley                              Cinematography: Arthur Reinhart
Starring: James Franco, Sophia Myles, Rufus Sewell and Bronagh Gallagher

The marketing department at 20th Century Fox did this film a great disservice. In attempting to capitalize on the perceived success of Baz Luhrman’s, literally unwatchable, version of Romeo and Juliet, they changed the “and” to a plus sign. Tristan + Isolde, however, is light years away from Romeo + Juliet in both quality and production. The tagline, “Before Romeo and Juliet, there was . . .” is beside the point, because the film and the story stand alone as great drama and should never have been connected in people’s minds with Luhrman’s debacle. The story is from a Celtic legend that predates even that of Lancelot and Guinevere and of course is the source material for the Wagner opera of the same title, and though it has been made into several films, it took producer Ridley Scott to shepherd this transcendent version.

The setting is England after the Romans have left in the fifth century, the island divided into separate kingdoms whose leaders have little in common except their hatred of the Irish king, David O’Hara, who can seemingly raid the British west coast at will. While attempting to ban together under Cornwall’s leader, Rufus Sewell, they are attacked yet again, with Sewall saving the son of one of his lords and losing his hand in the process. The young Tristan shows himself to be a natural fighter and Sewell takes a liking to him, raising him with the help of his sister. Meanwhile, O’Hara offers his daughter, Sophia Myles, to one of his warriors as a gift but the warrior is killed by the adult Tristan, James Franco, who is also apparently killed by the poison on his sword. When the fire on his funeral boat goes out, the currents take him to Ireland where he is found by Myles and after she secretly nurses him back to health the two fall in love.

It’s a great twist, one worthy of a legend, but the plot gets even more complicated later on. Producer Ridley Scott is on familiar ground here, after directing the brilliant Gladiator and Robin Hood with Russell Crowe as well as the earlier 1492: Conquest of Paradise, in addition to producing the television series Pompeii. His choice of director here is also good, in that Kevin Reynolds directed his own version of Robin Hood with Kevin Costner, as well as The Count of Monte Cristo with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce. As a result, the period settings and costumes, while still somewhat sanitized, are quite believable and add immensely to the enjoyment of the film.

The casting, for the most part, is very good as well. James Franco’s Tristan is the only misstep, in that he doesn’t really look right for the part and his acting can come off as kind of stilted. But Sophia Myles is excellent as Isolde and the two of them work well together. It’s great to see Bronagh Gallagher as Myles’ maid in waiting, as she was wonderful in her breakout role in The Commitments and the dozens of bit parts she has played since. Rufus Sewell is a brilliant choice as King Marke of Cornwall. His character truly is a good man, and it makes the conflict later in the picture even more difficult for the couple because of it. Tristan and Isolde is a wonderful love story, and a satisfying period piece that hits on every level, romance, action, intrigue and suspense. It’s a great film and deserves a lot more acclaim than it received on its initial release.

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