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Tristan & Isolde Review

By Shawn McKenzie 01/22/2006

If you had the opportunity to make an adaptation of an exciting fantasy love story, you would do it…right?  For some reason, the makers of Tristan & Isolde decided to take all of the fantasy away and just left us with the love story.  Unfortunately, cheesy acting derailed what could have been a good movie.

Sometime during the Middle Ages, following the fall of the Roman Empire, the divided territories of England are in disarray, and a unified Ireland wants to keep them in that state.  King Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara) of Ireland sends his forces make sure that they won’t be unified anytime soon.  During one of the raids, Lord and Lady Aragon (Richard Dillane and Bronwen Davies), the parents of young Tristan (Thomas Sangster), are killed, along with most of the other people in the territory, including the husband of Tristan’s sister Edyth (Lucy Russell.)  Tristan becomes orphaned, and the would-be king, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), takes him in and raises him like a son (he had rescued Tristan during the raid, but he lost his right hand during the bloodshed.)  He quickly earns the respect of his peers, including Edyth’s son Melot (Myles Taylor) and his friend Simon (Jack Montgomery.)  Back in Ireland, a young Isolde (Isobel Scott Moynihan) is mourning the death of her mother, the Irish Queen, from a bad fever.  Nine years later, Tristan (James Franco) has grown up to be a mighty warrior, and he has become Marke’s right-hand man (no pun intended.)  Isolde (Sophia Myles) has become a young woman who wants to marry for love, but her father keeps pimping her out to people as a prize.  Donnchadh has just promised her to his lead general, Morholt (Graham Mullins), for his years of dedication to him, and she isn’t happy about it.  She tells her problems to her maid and friend, Bragnae (Bronagh Gallagher), down on the Irish shore.  Back in England, Tristan, Melot (Henry Cavill), and Simon (Leo Gregory) discover a hidden tunnel that leads from the basement of Marke’s castle, and they decide to keep it a secret.  Tristan and Marke devise a guerrilla-style plan of attack on the Irish soldiers, which ends up being successful.  Unfortunately, Simon is killed in the battle, and Tristan, after having fought (and ultimately killing) Morholt, succumbs to a slash of the poisoned tip of Morholt’s sword.  The other men assume that he is dead (they didn’t bother trying to revive him for some odd reason) and they give him a Viking’s funeral, including setting him adrift in a floating funeral pyre and setting it on fire with flaming arrows.  The pyre ends up upon the Irish shore (and its flames somehow became extinguished) with Tristan still barely alive in it.  Isolde and Bragnae stumble upon it, and Isolde decides to nurse Tristan back to health, despite Bragnae’s warnings that it isn’t a good idea.  As he gets better, they start falling in love.  She misidentifies herself though, calling herself Bronwyn (she doesn’t want to tell this English boy that she is the daughter of the Irish king.)  Donnchadh finds out that Tristan is alive, and he wants revenge for killing Morholt and leading the attack on the Irish soldiers.  Isolde arranges for Tristan to sail on another boat to help him escape and bring him back to England.  Tristan makes it back to England, but he is depressed about having to give up his love Bronwyn.  In an attempt to cause disorder amongst the English lords, Donnchadh sponsors a tournament in Dunlace Castle with the prize being the land of Leonith and Isolde as the winner’s bride.  Tristan convinces Marke to let him go in Marke’s stead, because he thinks that winning the tournament will bring peace to the land, and he will be able to be with Bronwyn again.  He wins the tournament, but he is devastated to learn that Bronwyn is Isolde.  Isolde marries Marke, but she and Tristan continue their affair, exiting through the secret tunnel so that they can be together undetected.  When Marke, who turns out to be a really nice guy and a loving husband, eventually finds out the truth, it could mean more than just fidelity issues…it could mean the ruin of England.

This was a project for director Ridley Scott back in the late ‘70s, but he put it aside to direct 1979’s Alien.  He never picked it back up, so he gave the reins over to Kevin Reynolds (Scott remains executive producer, along with his brother Tony.)  I’m starting to realize that a director or actors can cheese up a decent script.  Dean Georgaris wrote the script, and he has a history of having his scripts messed with.  He wrote the awful sequel Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life in 2003, and later that year, his script for Paycheck became the not-so-good Ben Affleck movie.  Things picked up with his remake of The Manchurian Candidate in 2004 though.  Reynolds has a history of making cheesy swashbuckling movies, like 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1995’s Waterworld (I consider it a futuristic swashbuckling movie), and 2002’s The Count of Monte Cristo.

Why was it so cheesy?  Maybe the way leads Franco and Myles delivered their lines that made it cringe worthy.  One of the lines (that you see in the trailer) is an example.  “Isolde: How many did you love before me?  Tristan: None.  Isolde: And after me?  Tristan: None.”  Please!  There was a routine by Stan Freberg in the ‘50s called “John and Marsha.”  In the routine, the two characters said each other’s names while soap opera music played in the background.  If you ever get a chance to hear it, you will crack up.  This movie was almost as funny with its dialogue (except the Freberg routine was meant to be intentionally funny.)  Sewell was the only actor amongst the leads who turned in a decent performance.

Aside from the dialogue, there was no fantasy.  The original story contained elements of fighting dragons and love potions.  This movie had swordplay, and it wasn’t bad, but it would have been cool with the dragons or something.  Instead, we are left with what Antoine Fuqua also gave us in 2004 with King Arthur…which was a somewhat boring version of a legendary tale with all of the magical elements taken out of it.

Tristan & Isolde may have been a dream project for Scott, but Reynolds, Franco, and Myles messed it up.  The movie wasn’t boring, and the ladies are going to like the love story (if they can get past the dialogue), but it isn’t a movie that will stand the test of time.

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