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Movie Review: Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde, starring James Franco and Sophia Myles.

Tristan and Isolde, starring James Franco and Sophia Myles.

Star crossed lovers, early medieval Ireland and Britain, and a star-studded cast…sign me up! Sadly, my excitement was once again short lived.

As far as medieval movies go, Tristan and Isolde definitely isn’t the worst I’ve seen. I was looking for a movie to watch after work, and I thought, hey, James Franco, Sophia Myles, Henry Cavill, and Rufus Sewell, all directed by Ridley Scott?! – this can’t be that bad. Well, it was pretty bad, but it wasn’t the worst 2 hours of my life. The movie is slick, I’ll give it that; it had plenty of action sequences, a good cast, and decent chemistry between Myles and Franco. It kind of wanted to be A Knight’s Tale, but never quite made it.

The Plot

Well, for starters, the movie kicked off with this awful intro:

“Britain. The Dark Ages. The Roman Empire has fallen. The land lies in ruin divided among feuding tribes. To the West, Ireland has flourished, untouched by the Romans, protected by the sea. Led by their powerful and ruthless king, the Irish have subdued the Britons, knowing that if Ireland is to proper, the tribes must never be allowed to unite”

I almost turned it off after “Britain. The Dark Ages…” but decided to give it a chance. The story starts off at Castle Tantallon, in Cornwall. A young Tristan, played by Game of Thrones, Thomas Sangster, watches as his father tries to unite the tribes, Jutes, Angles, Celts, and Saxons to fight against the Irish.

The secret meeting is attacked by the Irish and Tristan’s father is killed, but before he dies, he hides Tristan under the floor boards. Tristan eventually emerges and is almost killed but his father’s close friend, Mark, played by Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, The Pillars of the Earth) saves him and decides to raise him as his own.

James Franco as Tristan, and Henry Cavill as Melot in "Tristan and Isolde"

James Franco as Tristan, and Henry Cavill as Melot in “Tristan and Isolde”

Fast forward 9 years, and Thomas Sangster has morphed into James Franco (Spider Man 3, The Interview ), a loyal son to Mark, and friend to Mark’s nephew, the jealous Melot, played by Henry Cavill (The Tudors, Man of Steel). Mark is now King of the Briton tribes.

In an attack on an Irish slave caravan, Tristan is injured by Morholt, leader of the Irish army. He is presumed dead by Melot, but he’s been poisoned by Morholt’s sword. Tristan is put on a funeral boat and cast out to sea. Tristan emerges, unconscious, on the Irish shore and is found by Isolde. She nurses him to health but tells him her name is Bragnae, the name of her maid. The two fall in love, but Tristan is forced to leave when his boat is discovered on the shore. Isolde’s father, King Donnchadh, knows a Cornish man is nearby and is combing the coastline to find him. Isolde helps Tristan escape in a boat back and he sails back to Cornwall.

Meanwhile, King Donnchadh, played by David O’Hara (Braveheart, The Departed), decides if he can’t crush the Britons by force, he will turn them against each other by offering his daughter, Isolde, as a prize in a tournament. Tristan goes to Ireland on behalf of King Mark and wins. Unfortunately, Tristan realises he’s won the woman he loves, for another man. Isolde dutifully marries the kindly Mark, but begins an affair with Tristan. The pair are caught, causing a renewed war between Ireland and the Britain. Mark is devastated and arrests Tristan. Isolde manages to explain the situation, and Mark relents; he allows the couple to leave together. Tristan decides to fight at Mark’s side, and puts Isolde and her maid in a boat. Unfortunately, Tristan is mortally wounded in this battle and dies by the river in Isolde’s arms. She plants a tree where he is buried and is never seen again.

Sophia Myles as Isolde. Isolde finds Tristan washed up on the Irish shore.

Sophia Myles as Isolde. Isolde finds Tristan washed up on the Irish shore.

So how much does it deviate from the 12th century French story of Tristan and Isolde (Iseult)? Quite a bit, but there are so many versions of the tale, it was easy for Scott to take serious liberties without much censure. In several medieval versions, they drink a love potion that causes them to be unable to keep away from one another. In other versions, there is another woman also named Iseult who Tristan marries because her name reminds him of the Irish princess he loved, Iseult. There is also version where Tristan and Isolde have children. Luckily for Scott, the main points of his story are true so the alterations didn’t really have me up in arms. I was more annoyed by Franco’s craptacular British accent and the fact Scott clearly doesn’t bother with research when he goes to make movies set in the Middle Ages. Granted, the story has many different versions, but the references to the “Dark Ages” and the 2 dimensional, stock medieval characters were my biggest issues with this film. Apparently, Scott had been dying to make this movie since the late 1970s. For someone that intent on a film, he certainly didn’t bother doing his homework.

Conclusion

I like these actors and I love Ridley Scott, the man is responsible for one of my all-time favourite sci-fi horror movies: Alien. He’s also the mastermind behind other great films, Blade Runner (1982), Black Hawk Down (2001) and American Gangster (2007) to name but a few.

This isn’t Scott’s first period rodeo, he was behind several blockbusters: 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and Robin Hood (2010). When it comes to historical films, Scott’s not always been so lucky, he’s had some hits and misses. In spite of that, I’d hoped this would be a decent addition to his repertoire. Sadly, it missed the mark; I think this is a genre Scott might want to steer clear of until he hires some actual historians for a little more guidance.

~Sandra Alvarez

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