Appellate Judge Erick Harper spent several minutes trying to solve the title's equation before he gave up and muttered that math is for squares.
Before Romeo & Juliet, there was Tristan + Isolde.
Predating the legends of King Arthur, and providing the inspiration for that tale's Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle, is the legend of Tristan and Isolde.
Facts of the Case
The departure of Roman occupiers has left Britannia in disarray. The various tribes—Angles, Jutes, Celts, Picts, and all the rest—squabble amongst themselves, making them easy pickings for the strong, unified Irish just to the west. Proposals to unite the Britons to fight Irish oppression focus on the potential leadership of one man, Lord Marke of Cornwall (Rufus Sewell, A Knight's Tale, Dangerous Beauty Dark City) but end time after time in treachery, bloodshed, and Irish reprisals.
One of Marke's most trusted warriors is Tristan (James Franco, Spider-Man, City by the Sea). Tristan has been raised by Marke's sister ever since the Irish broke up the last summit meeting trying to unify the leaders of the rival tribes. Poisoned in a skirmish with the Irish and seemingly dead, Tristan receives a Viking-style burial at sea—and washes up on a beach in Ireland, more or less alive. He is discovered by Isolde (Sophia Myles, Underworld, The Abduction Club, Out of Bounds), daughter of the Irish King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara, Braveheart, Stander). She secretly nurses him back to health and helps him escape back to Britain before he is discovered, all the while keeping her royal identity secret. In the process, they fall in love.
Donnchadh, in an effort to yet again divide the nascent British resistance, declares a great tournament, the winner of which will win lucrative lands and, more importantly, the hand of Isolde. The victor will gain resources and prestige enough to install himself as king over the fractious Britons. Marke sends the faithful Tristan as his champion. When Tristan (naturally) wins the tournament, and finds—to his horror—that he has just won the hand of his true love for his friend, mentor, and master, the stage is set for a love triangle that could spell the doom of England before it even has a chance to begin.
Those investigating Tristan + Isolde expecting a rip-roaring historical action flick along the lines of Braveheart or Gladiator will be disappointed. To be sure, the film contains a fair number of action scenes, but they are by no means its main focus. Tristan + Isolde was made on a much more limited budget than many recent similar movies, and in a way that is a blessing, as it avoids the repetitive excesses of epic-scale medieval combat. As audiences have seen more and more of those scenes it has become harder and harder to impress them; those that try run the risk of going completely over-the-top and garnering unintentional laughs, such as Antoine Fuqua in making King Arthur. Tristan + Isolde makes a virtue of necessity, and as a result the action is just what is required to service the story, but no more.
Unlike other medieval movies, however, the action is not the main point of this film. This is a drama, a tale of tragic romance. The main conflicts here are between love and honor, not between guys with swords from the prop department. Tristan longs to see Britain united; his father gave his life for that cause. His duty is to serve King Marke faithfully. He also loves Marke, who has been a father figure and close friend. However, he also loves Isolde, and true love is, of course, one of the noblest things of all. Isolde's inner conflict is much the same: her loyalty to her new husband and king vying with her true love for Tristan. Director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Count of Monte Cristo) resisted the urge to make their dilemma any easier by making Sewell's character less sympathetic. Marke is not some ogre, some unfeeling husband to whom Isolde is merely chained, but instead a truly good, wise, compassionate man who truly loves her as much as Tristan does. The decency and good intentions of all characters make the story that much more poignant and tragic.
The DVD of Tristan + Isolde from Fox comes laden with extras, but they fail to impress much. There is a lengthy making-of featurette which would be interesting if we had not all seen so many similar docs on DVDs of films by everyone from Mel Gibson to Peter Jackson. Yes, we get it—when you do a period piece like this everyone gets cold and wet and dirty. There are a lot of costumes and weapons. Sets get built and then torn or burnt down. Weather is a hassle, especially shooting in places like Ireland. We've heard it all before. Some interesting bits that we have not heard before come from screenwriter Dean Georgaris, who reveals that he first became interested in the Tristan and Isolde legend after watching John Boorman's Excalibur as a kid. Luck brought him in contact with Scott Free Films, where none other than Sir Ridley himself had been itching to make a Tristan and Isolde pic for almost thirty years. Scott bought the script and executive produced Tristan + Isolde, taking an active hand in development before turning the keys over to some of his associates and director Reynolds. Reynolds, who grew up with the darker films of the 1960s and 1970s, with their antiheroes and tragic endings, jumped at the chance to make a somber, serious, intelligent film set in the Dark Ages and lacking a traditional manufactured Hollywood ending.
The DVD also contains not one but two commentary tracks—the kind of treatment usually reserved for films that aren't hitting DVD less than four months after their theatrical release. As a DVD aficionado, I would usually be drooling at the prospect of multiple commentary tracks. As someone who works with words pretty extensively, I was especially interested to hear the thoughts of screenwriter Dean Georgaris. He is quite candid about the whole process of developing his script, and willing to be honest about things in his script that worked well or did not work so well. He admits that many of the changes Scott and Reynolds made to his script were better than what he originally had in mind. Overall, however, his commentary is kind of bland, without many surprises, and full of gaps and dead air. The commentary with executive producer Jim Lemley and co-producer Anne Lai is chattier and full of all the usual behind the scenes anecdotes, but there's not much new or interesting here—it was all pretty well covered in the featurette, and even that seemed like it could have been recycled from any one of a dozen movies.
The rest of the special features look nice but are even less substantial. There are extensive galleries of still photos from the set, the production design phase, and the costume design department; too bad that galleries of static images are probably the most useless special feature a DVD can have. No, check that—the most useless thing a DVD can have is a music video for the song that plays over the end credits, and this disc has two different versions of the exact same video. Of a bit more usefulness is the collection of marketing materials—the theatrical trailer and a surprisingly big collection of TV spots. Surprising, because if there were this many TV spots, I would think I would have seen more than one commercial for the film.
The picture quality of this disc is very nice. Fine details are crystal clear, scenes look great whether shot in full sunlight or firelight, and there is a minimum of digital defects. I did notice some noise around objects with hard edges, but it was barely noticeable. The film's entire color palette tends towards the muddier part of the spectrum, with natural colors and earth tones predominating, and the transfer handles this nicely. On the occasions when colors in the blues or reds do appear, they stand out nicely against the overall dullness of the surroundings.
Audio is presented in two English versions, a DTS 5.1 mix and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Neither one is particularly impressive. The surrounds are put to some use with music and incidental noises, but nothing that will prove terribly demanding for your sound setup. Dialogue is strangely, frustratingly buried in the mix, making lines often hard to hear even in relatively quiet scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Purists will certainly carp that Tristan + Isolde does not stay faithful to any one of the many versions of the legend to be handed down since the Fifth Century. Certainly the original tale contained more elements of fantasy and magic that have been lost in this version in favor of a more realistic/historic approach.
There were also some changes made to the characters, specifically to Isolde. To make her more unique, and to make her saving Tristan's life more believable, this version's Isolde is trained in folk medicines—roots, herbs, and the like. Fair enough. However, when she discovers that Tristan is in desperate need of heat and attempts to start a fire are not going well, she whips off her clothes and cuddles up to him naked. This may be a medically valid option, but in context it simply feels gratuitous, especially since this is a PG-13 movie anyway.
Character changes aside, there is one weak link in the romantic triangle at the core of this film, and that is James Franco. He is simply not convincing and lacks conviction; anyone who can fail to muster conviction or a believable performance when faced with a woman like Sophia Myles simply isn't trying at all, and might possibly be dead. He is overshadowed by both of his main co-stars, and audience members will be forgiven if they think that maybe Isolde is getting the better deal when she is married off to Marke anyway.
Tristan + Isolde is a well-made medieval tragedy that will surprise many viewers with its emphasis on characters, plot, intrigue, and romance at the expense of action. It is an interesting, entertaining film, but not particularly memorable or noteworthy.
Not guilty! We stand adjourned.
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• Commentary by Executive Producer Jim Lemley and Co-Producer Anne Lai
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