January: the month that is quite possibly the bane of a movie lover’s existence. The only real reason to go to the theater is to watch the holdovers from December, or to catch up with the smaller Oscar-grubbing flicks that are finally getting a wider release. To say the new movies coming out are typically a little lackluster is like saying Hurricane Katrina got the Gulf Coast a little wet.
This week we’re greeted with a romantic drama about star-crossed lovers, though their households aren’t exactly alike in dignity and we lay our scene in England and Ireland circa the fall of the Roman Empire, not Verona. Tristan and Isolde comes before the story of Romeo and Juliet (as the promotional material will gladly tell you), but that’s about the only thing this movie can brag about.
With its roots in Arthurian legend and literature, our ill-fated lovers are Tristan (James Franco), a British knight, and Isolde (Sophia Myles), an Irish princess, in a time when Britain’s myriad tribes are struggling to unite and overthrow the Irish yoke. Tristan is orphaned at a young age and raised by Marke (Rufus Sewell) to become one of Cornwall’s best young knights. After an Irish attack, though, Tristan is thought dead and his body sent to sea.
Isolde finds the unconscious Tristan washed up on the Irish coast and hides him from her father, the Irish king, to nurse him back to health. She doesn’t count on falling in love with him, though, and when her father gets word of a British knight on the coast, she sends Tristan back to Britain.
Both Tristan and Isolde get all mopey about being separated, until the Irish king decides to throw a tournament with Isolde as the prize. Unaware that Isolde is the king’s daughter, Tristan eagerly goes to participate as Marke’s champion. When he wins, he’s stunned to learn that he’s just won the woman he loves as a wife for his surrogate father. As you might surmise, they begin an affair, and it can only go downhill from there.
Thanks to a class in Arthurian legend and literature my sophomore year, I had some familiarity with the legend of Tristan and Isolde. However, it was completely unnecessary because as far as I can tell, the only thing this story has in common with the original legend is the names of the characters.
Obviously, this movie is about the love story, so it would make sense for the love story to feel important. Even if they are star-crossed lovers, you’re supposed to be rooting for them to be together, despite the fact that they’re putting a country at risk and no doubt devastating the woman’s husband. You’re supposed to be boo-hooing your eyes out at how sad it is that circumstances keep them apart.
Saying the movie doesn’t succeed in this aspect is an understatement. Romantic dramas may not be my bag of tricks but I can appreciate a good love story (see: Brokeback Mountain) and root for two people to be together even when they’re cheating on their spouses. In this case, though, it’s not romantic. It’s stupid and selfish, and the person who winds up with the most sympathy is Marke, not the titular lovers. He never does anything to hurt Tristan or Isolde, either emotionally or physically; he actually goes out of his way to take care of them, and they repay him by having an affair behind his back.
Just for the record: when the cuckolded husband’s more sympathetic than either of the lovers, that’s a bad thing.
When the main storyline of a movie flops, there’s not much reason to see it, but in this case there was the fleeting hope that, because it’s set in a volatile time in Britain’s history when swords were the preferred alternative to diplomacy, there might be a decent battle or two, or even an intriguing political subplot.
There is a political subplot, but it’s tacked on in such a way that you wonder if they just tossed it there at the last minute as thought they suddenly remembered Tristan and Isolde didn’t exist in a vacuum. The Irish king, main villain that he is, was a black handlebar mustache and an evil cackle away from being completely stereotyped (“Oooh, I shall do something to the Brits and then double-cross them! I am devious!”). It’s a shame, because that had the potential to actually be, you know, interesting.
As for decent battles…well, there are two battles, and they do hold your attention, but it’s hardly worth sitting through the other two hours of angst-ridden forbidden romance.
There are plenty of other decent movies still in theaters, so there’s no real reason to spend money to see this one if you’re heading to the multiplex. If you’re absolutely dying to see a tragic romance based on some of history’s classic lovers, go hit Blockbuster. There’re a million of them. This one isn’t worth it. And this is coming from a person who actually liked Troy.
From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies. This is one of the reviews I originally wrote during that time.