This retelling of the tragic Tristan and Iseult legend convinced Judge Amanda DeWees that getting involved with a man with a perm is just asking for trouble.
Bound together forever—through life, past death, and into the hands of God.
The tragic love story of Tristan and Iseult has been told and retold through the centuries. Even before it was incorporated into Arthurian legend, this Celtic love triangle was well known, and it gained a popularity among Victorian writers that it still enjoys today. So many different versions of the legend exist that it seems each writer—or filmmaker—can take away what he or she wants to from the tale, particularly with regard to character development and motivation. In Lovespell, the story is told as a relatively straightforward tragic love triangle: the story of two good men, bound by blood and loyalty, who have the misfortune to love the same woman.
Facts of the Case
On a visit to Ireland to reclaim some of his stolen wealth, King Mark of Cornwall (Richard Burton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) falls in love with young noblewoman Isolt (Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager). After returning to Cornwall and giving the matter careful thought, he sends his nephew and heir, Tristan (Nicholas Clay, Excalibur), to convey his marriage proposal to Isolt. Urged by her father, Isolt accepts, but as she heals Tristan's battle wound and travels with him to Cornwall, the two fall in love. Tristan's loyalty to his uncle precludes his interfering with the marriage, however. Afraid of losing her newfound love once they arrive in Cornwall, Isolt gives him a magical potion that will seal their love and bind them to one another for the rest of their lives, even unto death.
When they arrive in Cornwall, Isolt goes through with the marriage to Mark, who soon comes to realize that her heart is elsewhere. Tristan, unable to bear being so near the woman he loves while having no right to touch her, resolves to leave Mark's court, but Isolt will not be parted from him. They plan their escape, but Mark has come to learn of their liaison. Enraged, he separates the lovers, determined to have Tristan killed for his treachery. Even the king cannot part them for long, however, and they struggle against all the obstacles Mark places in their path to be together again.
Lovespell carries the distinct whiff of the made-for-television movie. It may well have been released theatrically, but despite its location filming in Ireland and the pedigree of Richard Burton as King Mark, it feels like a low-budget enterprise made with an eye toward network broadcast. Violence and nudity are at a minimum, as if to conciliate the most maidenly of network standards, and the hour-and-a-half running time seems designed to provide room for the requisite number of commercials. I haven't been able to confirm whether it was intended for theatrical release, but director Tom Donovan and screenwriter Claire Labine have both done most of their work in television, so perhaps it's inevitable that this film feels like it was made for the small screen.
The opening credits, it must be said, raised my expectations: Classy Celtic lettering accompanied by a lovely theme by venerable Irish musicians the Chieftains started the film off on a solid note. But once the credits end, pretensions toward big-screen grandeur plummet. The music shifts into a trite orchestral score, generic and inappropriate (credited only to Filmsounds, Inc.—assuredly it's a bad sign when no composer is named). Despite what the DVD insert promises, the Chieftains' music is heard only briefly in the film and is mostly reserved for the opening and closing credits. This was a crushing disappointment to me, especially since the mediocre score that does pervade most of the movie actually undercuts the mood more than it enhances it.
Our first glimpse of the young heroine, Isolt (Mulgrew) is charming, as is the Irish landscape, but immediately King Mark and his company appear. There's no graceful buildup; it's as if the director felt the need to get the story rolling right away, with no time wasted. Such clunkiness is characteristic of the style of the film, which has a hurried, too-condensed feel that carries through until the abrupt conclusion. Scenes end too quickly, and the passage of time isn't clearly indicated; sometimes a scene will cut away to a close-up of a character and then seem to cut back to the same scene…except that it isn't. Moments like this are like putting one's foot down on the stair that isn't there. Editing is sometimes downright bizarre, as when we watch Isolt dismount from her horse and begin to walk away from a camera, and there's a quick dissolve to her walking toward the camera, whereupon she turns again to walk away. I picture the editor and director putting their heads together in the editing room, trying to cobble together a sequence out of incompatible footage because they cannot afford reshoots.
Budgetary limitations make their presence felt in other ways, such as the paucity of costume changes for Mark and Tristan, who always seem to be wearing the same outfits. The production design, however, is cleverly devised to evoke a still-barbaric time, without an attempt at creating lavishness. The general look of the production seems to be designed to recapture the atmosphere of The Lion in Winter, released 10 years before, with its fur rugs, hand-woven costumes, and torch-lit stone chambers. In this, the film is largely successful, and the use of actual castles and Irish locations lends authenticity to the feel of the movie. Nevertheless, at other moments one wishes the director had had more resources at his command. The banquet at which Mark presents Isolt to his people is embarrassingly tiny, and dialogue that should have been looped for clarity remains untouched, so that lines are drowned out by a hawk's cries or distorted by the echoes of castle chambers.
The general unevenness is evident in the unfolding of the plot as well; in the third act, the film becomes a rapid sequence of undeveloped action scenes, as the young lovers struggle to unite and escape. There's not a lot of leisure during these sequences for character insight, and it is sorely lacking, particularly in the case of Mark. This is a character who varies widely in different versions of the myth, from well-meaning cuckold to cowardly murderer, and, although he is portrayed sympathetically here, his feelings aren't developed much beyond his understandable sense of betrayal. Insight into his character is scanty and sporadic: In one confrontation with Isolt, he seems to be actually losing his mind, but nothing before this scene prepares us to believe this is the case. Finally, as the film comes to a close, we are vouchsafed a deeper look into the psyches of Mark and Tristan, when the two are finally granted speeches in which to reveal their thoughts, motivations, and conflicts. Mark in particular has a touching, self-revelatory, if rambling, monologue that clarifies his feelings toward Isolt and the reasons for the way he has behaved toward her. But it's too little, too late. Similarly, the conflict Tristan experiences between love for Isolt and loyalty to Mark is undeveloped, where it should be a major issue.
In our lovers' triangle, Kate Mulgrew as Isolt is definitely the apex. In part this is because Isolt is the only character granted any real complexity or consistent development over the course of the film, but it's also due to Mulgrew's excellent performance. Mulgrew's ability to embody a mythic ingénue came as a pleasant surprise to me, since I'm acquainted with this actress mainly as the savvy, contemporary woman of Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins and reruns of Mrs. Columbo. Here she makes us believe that two very different men would find it easy to fall in love with her. Touchingly young, lovely, and spirited, Isolt is both the poised chatelaine of her father's household and an outspoken, irreverent young girl. She shows a refreshing candor, as when she responds unthinkingly to Mark's proposal, "But we are friends—and he is old!" She is the only character in this self-serious film who seems to possess a sense of humor, yet she is also entirely believable when registering the grief and pain of love denied. She speaks the sometimes flowery dialogue with ease and sincerity, and she even makes the most baffling blocking seem almost reasonable, as when she holds the maddened Mark off with a lit torch (which I suppose could be termed "Isolt with a deadly weapon") but then approaches close enough for him to grab it from her. With her tip-tilted nose and sheaf of brown hair, Mulgrew as Isolt even resembles John W. Waterhouse's Pre-Raphaelite paintings of mythic medieval heroines. Incontestably, Mulgrew is the star in the film's dime-store diadem.
Our triangle is anchored by the quiet authority of Richard Burton. As Mark, he gives a minimalist performance, letting his lean, lined visage do most of the acting. His performance is a solid example of star charisma endowing an underdeveloped character with greater depth. The weary cragginess of his face reminded me of Gary Cooper, also adept at saying little and conveying much. Without Burton to lend the character gravity and presence, the king would indeed be too sketchily drawn in. As it is, Burton's considerable charisma can only do so much to remedy the script's shortcomings. Moreover, it must be said that when he is finally given a meaty monologue—which, again, comes far too late in the film—he underplays to the point of sounding mechanical. I'd like to think this is a character choice, that Mark is too weary and disheartened to invest much energy in explaining himself to the woman who has betrayed him, but it also suggests that the actor himself isn't interested in investing himself in the film at this point. Perhaps Burton has in effect given a shrug of his shoulders and given up. His performance is ultimately successful almost by default, by grace of his powerful voice and physical presence.
The weakest point of our unsteady triangle is the young warrior Tristan. Nicholas Clay does present a handsome appearance, but squareness of jaw seems to be his major character trait. Granted, having to sport a curly perm and wear a minidress throughout the film would challenge any actor's dignity, and Clay does convey a pleasing sincerity. Nevertheless, Tristan does not emerge as a man of much depth, and unlike Burton, Clay does not have the screen presence to hint at unspoken complexities to his character. He approaches adequacy as the yearning lover but is unconvincing as both warrior (he is easily beaten up by three street thugs) and invalid (bounding to his feet, he belatedly remembers to clutch at his side to indicate his wound). Thus limited in emotional range, Clay as Tristan fails to engage sufficient interest or sympathy. Curiously, two years after Lovespell, Clay would play essentially the same role, as Lancelot in Excalibur. I can't say I recall being impressed by his work in that film, either. He sure is pretty, though—even with that perm.
Other members of the cast are largely irrelevant, since there's no subplot. (Again, the film seems to march in a direct line to the dénouement, almost wearing blinders to ensure that the journey takes no side streets.) As Isolt's father Gormond, Cyril Cusack sees and raises Burton's weary dignity. Veteran actress Geraldine Fitzgerald is underused in a cameo as Isolt's potion-brewing handmaiden, Bronwyn. Yseult of the White Hand, a rival to our heroine who makes an eleventh-hour appearance, is played woodenly by Kathryn Dowling, who is burdened with a hairstyle that shows just how much worse Tristan's perm could have been.
Visually, the film looks agreeably sharp (except, of course, during some embarrassing soft-focus scenes). There's a fair amount of dirt, speckling, and other flaws in the print, and the colors look a trifle washed-out—Ireland never attains its famed emerald green—but I sense some restoration work. The full-frame picture isn't an annoyance; there's no sense of parts of the scene being lopped off at the edges, and there are no intrusive pans. Although I haven't been able to confirm it, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the film's original aspect ratio. Audio is nicely clear, if not exciting, but again I must object to the annoying orchestral score. Even if the budget only permitted five minutes' worth of music by the Chieftains, I would rather have heard that repeated 18 times than what we are given.
Lovespell ends up feeling like a Reader's Digest condensed version of the myth; like its young hero, it's attractive to look at, but doesn't have a great deal of depth or development. It's a little disappointing to see such a tame rendering of a potentially powerful tale, but, on the other hand, at least it isn't burdened with a hammy Peter O'Toole performance like The Lion in Winter.
As TV movies go, this is a perfectly adequate one, even if it wasn't originally destined as such. It's not a bad way to spend an hour and a half, and Mulgrew's performance in an unusual role is worth seeing, but there are films much more worth the investment of 94 minutes. I'd recommend it as a rental title only, unless you're a collector of Celtic lore, courtly legend, or the work of Burton or Mulgrew. (That anyone would collect the oeuvre of Nicholas Clay, I find unlikely in the extreme.)
The court will exercise tolerance in this case and let the tragic threesome off with a warning. Director Tom Donovan is sentenced to a month in a stone cell listening to the products of Filmsounds, Inc.
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