Tristan & Isolde weaves the tale of two star-crossed lovers out of Shakespeare, or perhaps Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers were, in some way, influenced by these two. Whatever the case, director Kevin Reynolds's movie loses its focus early and noticeably in its indecisiveness about whether it cares (and whether we should care) about this romance. The Anglo-Norman legend of Tristan and Iseult (the latter's name translated here into its more modern English) is, of course, well-known, and Reynolds and screenwriter Dean Georgaris try their damnedest to remove all significance from it. The result is a soapy melodrama on two separate levels and a cacophony in the bigger picture.
Tristan (James Franco) has been raised since a tumultuous childhood, which saw the deaths of his parents in the same stroke following a contentious treaty signing meant to unify the tribes of 12th-century Britain, by Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), a kind and good-hearted member of British royalty. Marke, whose wife was with child when killed in the same attack, saw Tristan as the son he would never have, despite his equally paternal influence on nephew Melot (Henry Cavill). The nephew, of course, grows resentful Marke's admiration of Tristan and dismissal of himself.
Isolde (Sophia Myles), who loses her mother to illness and her father, King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara), to shuddering grief and his distancing throne, has been raised by a faithful maid, Bragnae (Bronagh Gallagher), in the interim of the nine years the film flashes past. The two meet upon his washing ashore onto her very beach, wounded and ill from a poison-drenched sword. The wielder of the sword was Isolde's betrothed, the mean and muscular Morholt (Graham Mullins), whom Tristan killed in a small skirmish that takes the life of a brother-in-arms.
Much of the film's intended drama lay both in the wait for Isolde to find out the terrible truth about Morholt's demise and in the matter of Tristan's shipwreck at her front porch, which is discovered only a short time into his recovery from the battle wounds. Then a circular and repetitive pattern of dramatic irony on all sides is activated, with Tristan unintentionally winning her heart in combat for Marke's hand in marriage and certain elements in Marke's administration spying for Donnchadh and his opposing Irish soldiers.
It holds a bit of intrigue but all hinges upon a conflicted romance built on a shaggy and sluggish back-and-forth dynamic that is all but entirely two-dimensional, and a large part of that inertia is found in the imprecise performances of the two primary leads. Franco looks half-asleep, even when he isn't recovering from battle, and Myles does what she can with a character who is often a plot device. The film's production is fine, with a lot of attractive exteriors captured with a certain amount of beauty, but Tristan & Isolde never lifts off, either as an adventure epic or as a romantic drama.
James Franco (Tristan), Sophia Myles (Isolde), Rufus Sewell (Marke), David Patrick O'Hara (Donnchadh), Henry Cavill (Melot), Mark Strong (Wictred), Bronagh Gallagher (Bragnae).
Directed by Kevin Reynolds and written by Dean Georgaris).
Rated PG-13 (intense battle sequences, sexuality).
Released on January 13, 2006.