28 March 2009

Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde A Pleasant Surprise
By Kristin Battestella

In my quest for quality fantasy films, I stumbled upon the 2006 tale Tristan and Isolde. Though some of the cast is a miss, honest drama and production make this a pleasant take on an ancient tale.

As Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) tries to unite post Roman Britain against the Irish, his adopted son Tristan (James Franco) is believed dead in battle. His body is sent upon a funeral boat, where he washes ashore in Ireland. There Isolde (Sofia Myles) nurses Tristan. Before Isolde’s father King Donnchadh (David O’Hara) can kill him, Tristan sails back to Cornwall, only to be sent back to Ireland to complete in a tournament. Tristan unknowingly wins Isolde’s hand in marriage to Lord Marke, and after trying to end their romance, they continue their affair against growing British unrest and battle.

Tagged as the precursor to Romeo and Juliet; Tristan and Isolde has more shades of Lancelot, Guinevere, and forbidden Camelot love. I like British History and Arthurian legend, sure, but I am no means a scholar. I don’t know how historically accurate this is, but it isn’t glaringly wrong like the 2005 attempt King Arthur. Tristan and Isolde highlights the struggle to unify Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Picts against the Irish, but I am surprised that this film is rated R. We have a handful of young love sex scenes, but there’s no nudity or overt bumping and grinding. The battle action is also not that brutal compared to other medieval films around. In light of all these new young adult, romancey, paranormal, and fantastical books and shows, I’m surprised Tristan and Isolde has not found an audience.

Previously, I’ve been impressed with James Franco’s work, transforming from James Dean to Pineapple Express takes skill. Unfortunately, Franco’s Tristan is a miss here. His bad hair is in his face, the out of place accent, and poor battle scenes stick out as ‘hottie casting’. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, most modern young American actors cannot pull of a period piece. Though he has earned female fans on The Tudors, always second fiddle Henry Cavill also looks weak and unposh here.

I have to say, it’s very strange to see Rufus Sewell as a good guy. Can we believe the wretch from A Knight’s Tale and Bless The Child is the good natured King with both Tristan and Isolde’s and Britain’s best interests at heart? It’s a tough pill to swallow. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mark Strong (Sharpe’s Mission, Henry VIII) as Wictred. He looks the part of a power hungry early Medieval bad ass, but he’s a little too over the top. It’s as if director Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) is pumping up the badness to heighten the tragedy of the central romance. If he had more presence from James Franco, Tristan and Isolde wouldn’t feel so unevenly cast.

Although the men are only swoon worthy to their die-hard fans, Sophia Myles (Moonlight) is a pleasant Isolde. Her accent wavers and sometimes I can’t help but picture her as Erika in Underworld; but Myles brings strength, individually, and intelligence to what could be a very weak and bland character. Instead of accepting her fate as a pawn between Kings, Isolde stands up for herself and love. It’s sounds sappy, but the irony and circumstance of this ancient tragedy trumps the uneven melodrama.

Tristan and Isolde (Widescreen Edition)Despite my questions with the cast, Tristan and Isolde gets a lot right in story and production. The Irish coastlines look exceptional and authentic, and as I said, the history is believable enough. The costumes and armor also look accurate to what little we know about the Dark Ages. The film is a little dark in lighting, of course, but the firelight, castles, woodworks, and boats all have that medieval charm. It has pretty music and a nice interface, but I expected more from the DVD. There’s a gallery and a short behind the scenes, but I’d like to know more about Tristan and Isolde-both the movie and the old story. Online there’s little information about this movie as well. All through the featurette, director Reynolds kept talking about how low budget this film was-corners were cut everywhere, yada yada. Tristan and Isolde isn’t perfect, but it’s a pleasant little movie that doesn’t look have bad. With a little more love and attention, who knows how much better this story could have been.

Medieval fans should take a chance on Tristan and Isolde. Although I don’t normally go for sappy material, I do feel this is more a girls’ film. Boys looking for hard-core effects and action won’t find it here. And although Tristan and Isolde is by no means The Lord of the Rings, mature teens might also enjoy turning to the ancient source literature and subsequent Arthurian legends. Instead of glorifying Romeo and Juliet over and over, this timeless tale deserves an appreciation. With affordable DVDs and rental options available, you can give Tristan and Isolde an guilt free try.

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