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TRISTAN AND ISOLDE (director: Kevin Reynolds; screenwriter: Dean Georgaris; cinematographer: Arthur Reinhart; editor: Peter Boyle; music: Anne Dudley; cast: James Franco (Tristan), Sophia Myles (Isolde), Rufus Sewell (Marke), David Patrick O’Hara (King Donnchadh), Henry Cavill (Melot), J. B. Blanc (Leon), Thomas Sangster (Young Tristan), Bronagh Gallagher (Bragnae); Runtime: 125; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Lisa Ellzey/Giannina Facio/Moshe Diamant/Elie Samaha; 20th Century Fox; 2006-Ger/Czech Republic/UK/USA)
“No Wagner libretto and not much depth or soul.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This Tristan and Isolde doomed romantic tragedy from Celtic mythology is set in the Dark Ages in post-Roman Briton. It shoots to be a bloody blockbuster action film with some heart-throbbing romantic moments, but with no Wagner libretto and not much depth or soul–there’s not much to the legend to pore over. It seemed more like a soap opera. Mediocre director Kevin Reynolds (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”/”Waterworld”/”Count of Monte Cristo”) and less than scintillating writer Dean Georgaris (“Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”) keep it dull and more like a date flick than a classic. It’s the kind of mindless action spectacle Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) should direct (he worked on this story during the 1970s), but he’s signed on only as executive producer. The film’s tagline is “Before Romeo & Juliet, there was…” The supporting cast was better than the star James Franco, who makes for a handsome English knight but is an unappealing actor.

The film opens with the chiefs of the harried English tribes (Anglos, Saxons, Picts and Jutes) meeting in an English village to unite and attack in force the Irish. Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), the strongest of the tribal chiefs, dreams of uniting British forces with him as king. The Irish are successful in their surprise pre-emptive attack of their meeting place and massacre almost everyone in the village. Tristan is a child (Thomas Sangster) who will be saved by Lord Marke, who loses his hand in the attack. Since Tristan’s parents were slain he’s raised by Lord Marke and with his own son, who is the same age. As they grow into manhood, Lord Marke favors the brave Tristan over his own cowardly nephew Melot (Henry Cavill).

After a battle in which the fractious tribes of Briton finally unify for this one battle and defeat the soldiers of the powerful and tyrannical Irish king, Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara), Tristan (James Franco) is left for dead but turns up on a raft floating off the Irish coast. The half-naked hunk is unconscious when rescued by the beautiful Princess Isolde (Sophia Myles), the daughter of the Irish king, and her servant. Princess Isolde is upset with her hard-headed realpolitik scheming father who is forcing her to marry an oafish brute, his top soldier. But, coincidentally, Tristan slays him in battle. The Irish gals nurse their English enemy secretly back to health in a beach cave and Tristan and Isolde fall in love. But as soon as he gets better, he returns to England without even knowing her name. The shrewd Irish king sponsors a tournament among the disgruntled rioting tribes’ best warriors to get them under his thumb by having them compete for Isolde’s hand. Tristan wins the prize for his adoptive father Lord Marke, but is shocked to discover his loved one is under the veil as the prize. The marriage is meant to unite the warring lands, so it must be consummated. Though both T & I feel bound to duty, the illicit lovers just can’t help loving each other in the castle and endangering the kingdom and fragile peace.

The drawbacks are as big as the Irish coast. It’s done in with corny lines such as “With every look he gives you I get sicker and sicker!”, with the star-crossed lovers reading poetry written in later centuries (What was that about?), and no chemistry between them even as they swoon over each other; the film might have had good production values but was lacking in the passion that makes you care about the characters, there was no conviction in telling the story (incidentally, an epic story from a thousand years ago), a pouty Franco was miscast as Tristan, its slow pace kept things unbearably sluggish and it was overlong (at least twenty minutes could have been chopped off without missing a thing).

REVIEWED ON 11/28/2006 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”