Tristan & Isolde begins with an action scene, ends with an action scene, and has one action scene in its middle. The first is one that I can describe, in which England and Ireland are in constant conflict. Tristan (James Franco) is a young English warrior, skilled with a blade. He decides to go free some prisoners, and ends up killing a bunch of people, including a husky man. It turns out that an Irish princess named Isolde (Sophia Myles) was betrothed to this gentleman.
Tristan is poisoned during this battle though, although he is presumed dead. His comrades place him in a boat, set it off to sea, and shoot it full of burning arrows. Somehow, he makes it to a beach of Ireland, completely unharmed by the fire. Isolde finds him, hides him in a cave and nurses him back to full health. this would be against her father’s wishes, she claims, but she does it regardless. After becoming well enough to depart Ireland, he asks her to come with him. She refuses, although her reason isn’t all that clear. At first, I thought, like the advertisements told me, this would be like Romeo and Juliet, although the reason they can’t be together is just because she says they can’t. It doesn’t turn out that way though, thank goodness.
What results later is a tale mostly of jealousy. After entering a tournament that was supposed to unite Britain, Isolde ends up becoming the bride of Lord Marke of Cornwall (Rufus Dewell). But since Tristan is indebted to Lord Marke, he can’t do anything about that. And so begins our real story, which only really starts somewhere around an hour into the film. The impending doom comes from the Irish, who are set-up as the film’s bad guys, because they don’t want peace, and are looking for any opportunity to break their truce with the English.
The resulting love story isn’t actually a bad one, and it managed to keep me entertained for most of the film’s runtime. The pair sneak around behind the backs of people they love, and who love them, which causes a lot of tension any time they try to sneak around with one another. You don’t want them to get caught, even though you can’t agree with their actions. It creates an interesting dynamic for the audience, because you’re constantly being torn in one direction or the other.
I did want more action scenes though, because the one’s we’re given are a lot of fun. The one to begin the film has a lot of carnage and death, although because it’s a PG-13 movie, little to no blood. This continues throughout, with the only blood coming from serious injuries, instead of quick deaths. It’s also odd that when a main character gets stabbed, they can continue fighting for a long time, even when that injury appears to be at their heart. An enemy taking an injury anywhere is an instead kill, unless they’re one of the main villains.
I have a feeling that Tristan & Isolde could have easily been shortened if either of the main characters would have done the logical thing in their situations. When Tristan initially asks if Isolde wants to go away with him, she says “no” for almost no discernible reason. If she had said yes, they could have left and gone away together — something she actually suggests later in the film — which would have solved all of their problems. And why didn’t Tristan at least fight for her once she becomes the property of Lord Marke? If he was truly in love, and this is another thing that is told to him, then honor shouldn’t matter that much.
But these aren’t things I thought about during the film. It involved me enough, and gave me enough of an emotional attachment to its characters to get my mind from wandering and thinking about its problems. That’s a good thing, although it means that watching the film a second time might not be as rewarding. That’s especially true when you know its ending, which, I’m happy enough to say, isn’t like the ending to the story that the advertisements compare it to: Romeo and Juliet.
Actually, I don’t really understand these comparisons. Sure, Isolde is Irish and Tristan is English, and yes, their different cultures are at war, but it doesn’t seem like Isolde causes much of a stirring once she goes to English territory. They accept her just fine, furthering my suspicion that if she would have just left at the beginning, a lot of the problems the characters have to overcome, or succumb to, wouldn’t occur. Romeo and Juliet each had other people telling them they couldn’t be together, while Tristan and Isolde only seem that way because they’ve decided so.
I don’t believe that James Franco is right for the role here, or at least, he doesn’t play it correctly. There’s always a tear in his eye, and he’s always gloomy, even when he’s supposed to be the heroic warrior. Myles’ Irish accent didn’t start out all that great, but she did eventually improve on it. At that point, she settles into her role and the film gets better.
Tristan & Isolde isn’t an epic action film set in the 5th century, but it is a solid romance film with betrayal, suspense and some thrills. It keeps the audience involved, which will allow you to overlook some of its flaws, like how the characters’ actions don’t make logical sense, or how easily all of the drama could have been avoided altogether. You get caught up in the story, and while it isn’t a great film, you could do a whole lot worse.