If you’re a fan of tragic love stories, such as “Romeo and Juliet” or “Titanic”, then this period romance is for you. Set in the Dark Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire (though the Romans had retreated from England long before), “Tristan and Isolde” has enough passion, action and passionate action to please both female and male viewers.(So no arguing over what to rent next time at the movie store!) It also has three attractive leads in Tristan (James Franco), Isolde (Sophia Myles) and Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) as well as the beautiful west coast of Ireland, which much of the movie was filmed. The Irish coast, with its rugged land and sea, is so gorgeous, it should be listed as a co-star.
James Franco may be the most recognized of the acting trio; because of his “Spiderman” role as Spidey’s best friend/enemy. Watchers of CBS’s vampire drama “Moonlight” will recognize Sophia Myles, whose delicate fairness seems better suited to period roles than modern. And it’s nice to see Rufus Sewell play a nice guy royal as opposed to his nasty guy royals in “A Knight’s Tale” and “The Illusionist”.
The story of Tristan and Isolde is an old Celtic myth and may have inspired the King Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle in Arthurian lore. In the myth, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink a magic love potion meant for Isolde and her betrothed. The movie dispenses with the magic, making them two young people who simply fall in love, to tragic consequences.
For years, the British tribes have chafed under Irish rule. With the encouragement of Lord Marke of Cornwall and Tristan’s father, the chieftains secretly meet to sign a treaty to unite against their common enemy. King Donnachadh gets wind of the pending rebellion and sends an attack squad led by Lord Morholt, catching the British unawares. Among those killed are young Tristan’s family and Marke’s pregnant wife. Marke loses a hand saving Tristan’s life and afterwards adopts him.
The movie jumps ahead nine years. Marke has rebuilt his castle and his kingdom, and Tristan is his right-hand man. Isolde has become a skilled herbalist, but spends much of her time moping around the shore with her maid Bragnae, depressed because her father has betrothed her to his right-hand man, the brutish Morholt. So when a handsome injured man washes ashore after a battle, she’s there to rescue him, even if he is the enemy. Hmmm, two young attractive people, one of them semi-naked, thrown together in a romantic life-or-death situation. What do you think will happen?
One day Isolde’s maid is conveniently elsewhere and the couple consummate their love. But the Irish have discovered an enemy on their shore and Tristan escapes back to Cornwall, never knowing that his lover was the king’s daughter.
Donnachadh decides to create dissension among the British tribes in a more subtle fashion. He holds a tournament with his daughter’s hand in marriage as the prize. Marke sends Tristan as his champion and despite some dirty doings, he emerges the winner. Moments later shock sets in for both Tristan and Isolde, as he realizes who she is and she realizes he’s merely a representative, not her husband-to-be.
There’s a lovely nighttime scene as Isolde in her wedding finery, her way lit by torches, drifts in a barge to the wedding ceremony. Marke and Isolde are married, the war is ended. And the love triangle begins. The filmmakers up the angst ante by making Marke a kind and caring man who genuinely wants to make his new wife happy. (Ladies, you may find yourself asking ‘why can’t a find a man like that?’) But as mentioned, this is a love triangle and love triangles never end happily. And is the war between the British tribes and the Irish really over or just on hold?
Swordfighting and derring do, sweet romance and emotional angst, plots and counterplots and the beautiful Irish countryside. A castle with a secret passage is even thrown in for good measure. Really, what more could you ask for?
“Tristan and Isolde” is rated 14A and runs 125 minutes. The love scenes are fairly chaste and the battle scenes fairly bloodless. It is available on widescreen DVD with special features such as commentary and a “making of” featurette.