Tristan + Isolde
Is it Kevin Reynolds’ mission to direct faintly dull period pictures between Kevin Costner collaborations? That seems to be the case, with this, Rapa Nui and, to a lesser extent, The Count of Monte Cristo. Tristan is by far his most soporific film, however, and he is fortunate that his career torpor has been relieved by the Hatfields and McCoys mini-series.
Did some less-than-savvy marketing exec think that adding the “+” to the title gave the film some sort of Romeo + Juliet “street” cachet with the kids? That’s the only thing I can come up with (although, it’s unclear which is correct; imdb has a “+”, the poster “&”).
Ridley Scott was originally attached to a version of this tale in the ‘70s, and perhaps he would have had the edge on Boorman’s Excalibur. But I doubt it. The legend predates the Arthurian romance between Lancelot and Guinevere, but just isn’t as compelling. Both involve a love triangle with the king as cuckold, but the Arthurian take has abundant rich mythology surrounding it. Reynolds eliminates any supernatural elements (no love potion here) and goes for the post-Gladiator “blood and brutality” take on legends (see also Bruckheimer’s King Arthur and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood), thus eliminating much of what made them so compelling in the first place.
The bare bones: Sophia Myles plays Isolde, daughter of the Irish king, who tends the injured Tristan (James Franco) when he washes ashore in Ireland. Naturally, they fall in love. Tristan serves English King Marke (Rufus Sewell), who saved his life when he was a child. Tristan must flee back to Britain, never having learned Isolde’s real name. He wins a tournament as King Marke’s champion but learns that the prize (part of a plot by the King of Ireland), a bride for Marke, is Isolde. Tristan and Isolde embark on a clandestine romance that eventually has ramifications both personal and political.
The most obvious problem with Reynolds’ film, aside from the complete lack of inspiration in the visuals and screenplay, is the miscasting of Franco. He is the personification of the feckless movie brat, surly and tepid when he should be representing a heroic ideal. More superficially, he has the anachronistic look and air of a modern American and does nothing to disguise this. He lacks believability as a brutal fighter and has zero charisma as a doomed lover (and no chemistry with Myles). This isn’t just a jab at the ubiquity of Franco; he was fine in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man films, working against his bland good looks. But here he is called on to do little more than pout and preen; he certainly can’t carry the film. The result is only a little less embarrassing than Orlando Bloom’s leading man duties in Kingdom of Heaven. Crucially, the romance plot, upon which the films drama rests entirely, crumbles. If we don’t sympathise with the title characters, and we don’t, we gravitate towards the measured and reasonable Marke .
Everyone else (Myles, Sewell, Mark Strong, Henry Cavill, David O’Hara) is fine, but Dean Georgaris’ screenplay is lifeless and his dialogue is forgettable (he is also credited on The Manchurian Candidate remake, Paycheck and the second Tomb Raider; not the most illustrious of CVs). Reynolds stages the action competently, but there’s no spark or vitality to lift this extremely pedestrian retelling of the legend.