It isn’t often that a reviewer feels compelled to comment on the press kit for a movie, but occasionally one comes along that demands censure. In the materials publicizing Kevin Reynolds’ bland retelling of the tragic medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde–recounted many times on screen, often in the form of stagings of Wagner’s famous opera on the subject–we read, “Little has been recorded about the era between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, known as the Dark Ages.” Apart from being badly written, this is a sentence of such staggering ignorance that a medievalist, up to his ears in documents and histories, can only roll his eyes in amazement.
That wouldn’t matter in terms of the actual movie, of course, if its understanding of the Middle Ages were any more discerning. But Reynolds exhibits the same degree of perception about the period that he demonstrated in his version of “Robin Hood” (1991)–you know, the one in which Kevin Costner’s accent was about as convincing as the one Elizabeth Taylor had used in “Cleopatra.” In other words, little to none.
Not that “Tristan & Isolde” is really concerned with the Middle Ages in any serious historical sense. It’s set in England and Ireland in the years following the Roman withdrawal from Britannia and the settlement of some areas of the island by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes; that would put it somewhere in the sixth century A.D., about the same time frame as in last year’s “King Arthur” (with which it also shares a general atmosphere of gloom and dreariness). But all the details it offers about the time are purely fanciful. In this telling, the region of Cornwall, presided over by Lord Mark (Rufus Sewell), as well as much of the rest of the British Isles, are in thrall to the Irish King Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara), who exercises his power through a brutal warrior named Morholt (Graham Mullins). On one of the Irish raids against Mark’s futile efforts to unite the realm for defense, the parents of a young boy named Tristan are killed, and he’s adopted by Mark (who loses a hand protecting him). Nine years later the boy has grown into the king’s strapping, shaggy-haired champion (James Franco), who arranges an ambush when Morholt returns to take further hostages and kills the brute. Unfortunately, he’s wounded in the melee with a poisoned knife and, thought dead, is given what amounts to a Viking sendoff on a burning boat. But the skiff finds its way to the Irish coast, where it’s discovered by Isolde (Sophia Myles), daughter of Donnchadh, unwilling betrothed of Morholt and–it seems–a medical magician who uses her knowledge to restore Tristan to life and health. They also fall into one another’s arms, of course, before Tristan must return home. Soon after, news of Morholt’s defeat forces Donnchadh to offer his daughter in wedlock to the winner of a great tournament, in which Tristan wins Isolde–though he doesn’t know she’s the prize, of course–for Mark against another English lord, the weak and treacherous Wictred (Mark Strong). What follows back in Cornwall is a variant of the Arthur-Guenevere-Lancelot story, with Tristan and Isolde doomed by love to betray poor Mark–an act that gives an opening to Wictred to use Mark’s son Melot (Henry Cavill), envious of his father’s preference for Tristan, as a tool in his machinations to assist Donnchadh. The inevitably tragic finale of doomed young romance is preserved, but it’s combined with yet another big battle sequence in which Tristan is allowed to prove his loyalty to king and country as well as his love for Isolde before fadeout.
There are plenty of variations in the accounts of Tristan and Isolde that have come down to us from medieval writers, dating from the twelfth century onward (though the germ of the story certainly went back much further), so you can’t complain about narrative liberties in this case. Modern writers and directors have as much right to embellish or alter as older ones did. So we may note that there’s no love potion here, as there is in so many versions, nor is there the dramatic culminating episode involving a ship with either a black or white sail that’s found in one of the fullest older accounts; even the famous ending touch about the vines (or branches) growing intertwined for eternity to symbolize the persistence of Tristan and Isolde’s love is here relegated to an endnote. What Reynolds and scripter Dean Georgaris have cobbled together is instead something like a WB Network twentysomething soap opera in medieval dress, lacking any sense of the grandeur and richness of the original legend. Visually everything looks pallid and pale, courtesy of production and costume designs by Mark Geraghty and Maurizio Millenotti that play up the dinginess of the age and cinematography by Arthur Reinhart that makes everything look drab and murky through continual use of washed-out colors. And while Sewell and O’Hara cut strong figures as the opposing rulers and Strong and Cavill are reasonably effective in support as well (as is Bronagh Gallagher as Isolde’s ever-faithful comic-relief maid), the leads don’t capture the fervor or intensity of their legendary characters. James Franco is handsome enough with his mob of unruly hair and well-toned physique, but he doesn’t convince as a peerless warrior, and his mooning about after Mark takes Isolde to bed conveys not so much deep passion as puppy-dog pouting. Myles, meanwhile, is okay as his love, but never takes the breath away as Isolde should. Together the two seem less Romeo and Juliet than Tony and Maria without the songs–and the workmanlike but inspired score by Anne Dudley isn’t a fair replacement, never suggesting the soaring beauty of Wagner’s melodies for an instant. In that respect it’s a pretty apt complement to Georgaris’ dialogue, which is flat at best and dopey at worst.
In sum “Tristan & Isolde” is a smaller-than-life version of the legendary tale, a tepid, tinny modernist recasting of the epic romance that offers simple slowness when languorousness is required and is more likely to induce drowsiness than a passionate swoon. As was the case with “King Arthur,” by conventionalizing a great medieval story the filmmakers have simply neutered it. The result is better than the press kit prepared to publicize it, but not by much.