On Tristan + Isolde

My Sophia Myles film festival continued with 2006’s Tristan + Isolde.

The story of Tristan and Isolde is one of the great tragic love stories, and has been told in medieval romances for about a millennia. The story centers on the love triangle between Tristan, his uncle (and liege lord) Mark, and Mark’s wife Isolde. (I’m using the versions of the names in the film; other variants are Tristram or Tristran and Iseult.) Usually the story is told within the context of the Arthurian mythos; Mallory himself devotes a fair amount of space to the story in Morte d’Arthur.

For this film, from producers Ridley and Tony Scott and director Kevin Reynolds (of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld fame), the Arthurian elements have been stripped away. Britain in the sixth century is a divided land between the Picts, the Scots, and the Saxon tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes). Across the Irish Sea, Ireland is united under a High King, and the Irish as working to undermine the British kingdoms and exacting tribute from them. What follows is a film that is set firmly in a Dark Ages setting that, while not perhaps historically accurate, at least makes an effort at not being historically anachronistic. This movie has a Dark Ages feel to it.

(And, completely off point, it’s not difficult to imagine this film as occuring in the same history that Antoine Fuqua’s earlier King Arthur film took place. If you liked that film, then Tristan + Isolde hits similar notes.)

I enjoyed the film. However, it is not without its flaws — and they are significant.

First, some major characters look very nearly alike, and it’s difficult at times to discern who is who, especially because names are used so rarely in the film. (There are some major characters that I have absolutely no idea what their names are, and I’ve watched this film three times now.) Because there are so many men with the same style beards, similar black hair styles, and similar builds running around, some of the conflicts are absolutely impossible to keep straight.

Second, the direction is absolutely gorgeous — and absolutely snooze-inducing. Much like the extended edition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, some stretches of this movie exist solely to show off the landscape. Yes, Reynolds manages to create a mood, and it’s a lush, romantic mood that his direction evokes, but it’s also easy for the attention to wander.

So, it’s an occasionally confusing film, and it’s boring.

But what did I like about Tristan + Isolde?

The casting works. Sophia Myles looks fantastic. I thought James Franco did a great job as Tristan. Rufus Sewell’s Mark was sympathetic and convincing as a leader of a fractured people. Some of the supporting actors like Henry Cavill (Suffolk on The Tudors) turned in solid performances.

The story works as well. Divorcing the tale from its Arthurian background keeps it more focused. And, perhaps the biggest change, Mark isn’t portrayed as a heartless villain as he is in the Arthurian legend. He’s a sympathetic man here, and you genuinely feel sorry for him as Tristan and Isolde’s affair puts him in a difficult position. He loves Tristan like a son, he’s besotted with his new wife Isolde, and their betrayal wrecks his world.

The film evokes genuine feeling. There’s pain here, and it hurts. There’s also love here, and the love hurts, too. Parts of the film are truly moving.

It’s a beautiful film to look at. Watch Tristan + Isolde for the love story. Try not to get bogged down in the political dealings. And have some tissues at the ready.

By the way, I really do like Sophia Myles in these historical dramas — first this and now Outlander. And coming up? Doctor Who.

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