Tristan & Isolde (review)

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The Lure of Lore

So, we have a new retelling of a medieval legend from director Kevin Reynolds, who brought us the supremely goofy Kevin Costner-riffic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (not the mention the dreadful The Count of Monte Cristo as well as Waterworld, which isn’t as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe but ain’t exactly good, either)? It’s being released in the cinematic dead zone of January, where major studio films get unceremoniously dumped hoping no one will notice them amidst all the Oscar bait still generating buzz and drawing audiences? And it stars James Franco, the guy who played James Dean, and how could a guy who played James Dean so convincingly ever possibly pass for a medieval knight?
But you know what? Tristan & Isolde is good — really good, in all sorts of unexpected ways: it’s stirring, sexy, exciting, tragic, and perhaps most surprisingly, genuine. It’s so amazingly good that you half expect to discover that some sort of dark magic has been deployed to bewitch the audience, and later we’ll awaken from dreams of loving this film and finally see it with clear eyes and go, Whoa, what the heck happened? I thought this was good?

But no, there no magic at work here but the movie kind. And there’s no “magic” — I mean, the fantasy kind, wizards and trolls and spells and stuff — at work, either. Not that I have extensive experience of sixth-century Britain or anything, but Tristan & Isolde feels wonderfully authentic: It’s a sincere, honest attempt to bring before a contemporary audience the starting point for all the love stories in Western literature… without being contemporary itself, except in the broadest kind of way that is demanded by popular filmmaking, the kind so easily forgiven that can be entirely overlooked. (Like, everyone is speaking modern English with modern English and Irish accents.)

My point is: the film doesn’t look like it was shot at a Renaissance Festival: a great deal of effort was expended to ensure that the clothing looks like what medieval British cultures would have produced, as do the huts and houses and castles and keeps, and that modern cultural attitudes or ideas about love or honor or duty do not slip in… except, again, in the sense that such things can be universal and timeless. It’s not so serious, though, that it becomes pompous or bloated with its own sense of importance, either. I was only tempted to supply a line of commentary with a line from The Princess Bride or Monty Python and the Holy Grail maybe twice, and that’s less than any given detergent commercial or episode of a TV detective show might.

There’s a palpably organic feel to the whole affair, and I promise right now never to disparage James Franco again with the James Dean thing, which I recognize was ironically unfair — imagine, tarring a performer with the “shame” of being spectacular in a memorable role. I will never again doubt he can play pretty much any character he sets his mind to, for he is as fantastic here as he’s ever been: I was afraid he was too modern and too American, but he looks perfectly the part, carries a sword like he was born to it, and doesn’t overdo the accent like American actors sometimes do when they’re feeling inadequate in such a role.

Oh, sure, Franco’s (The Great Raid, Spider-Man 2) Tristan is a bit weepy, but that’s what you want from your medieval courtly romantic types, right? He manages to make even heartache and emotional pain feel all rugged and masculine as he finds himself deeply torn between his devotion to his ruler, the British tribal Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell: Helen of Troy, A Knight’s Tale), and his lover, Isolde (Sophia Myles: Thunderbirds, Underworld), who is from enemy Ireland, the daughter of the Irish king, Donnchadh (David O’Hara: Hotel Rwanda, Made), no less, who holds all of England under his dominion. The enemy thing would be bad enough, but for those who don’t know what constitutes the real Classic Tragedy of the archetypal Celtic romance, I won’t reveal it here, except to say that it’s the kind of thing that you know can never end well, except in Hollywood films.

But surprise, surprise: Tristan & Isolde hasn’t been Hollywoodified. Reynolds and his screenwriter, Dean Georgaris (The Manchurian Candidate, Paycheck), have instead made a film that feels like the cinematic equivalent of the crumbling Roman ruins at which Tristan and Isolde secretly rendezvous: it’s a corporeal reminder of a lost past, a souvenir of a mysterious and distant time that continues to influence us today.

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