REVIEW: Tristan & Isolde [2006]

“Stolen moments that leave too quickly”

Looking at the filmography of director Kevin Reynolds makes me wonder why I was so surprised at how much I enjoyed his most recent work, Tristan & Isolde. With two enjoyable swordfighting epics on the list—Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Count of Monte Cristo—I should have realized this guy had the goods to make a winner, despite the possibility that this love story could veer too far into romance than I might have liked. With a lot more fighting and background into the politics of Britain’s attempts at uniting against the Irish front, (a dynamic that seems so backwards when you think of today), the tale of love between our stand-ins for Romeo & Juliet serves as a backdrop and impetus for the struggles of a nation. It is more a film about the unification of a national powerhouse, the beginnings of a blood feud between these two nations that still exists for extremists today, than a tale of forbidden love. Sure the romance is there, and it is effective, but the relationships between soldiers and kings truly makes the movie much more than I think most people would initially give it credit for.

It all starts with the treachery of a Brit, leading the Irish to a secret meeting of alliance, a gathering to unite Britain for a 2 to 1 advantage over the nation across the water. The Irish take out most of the tribe leaders, leaving the traitor and would-be king alive. The latter of which loses his hand in order to save the son of the man who opened the way to unification for him, Tristan. Sir Marke vows to raise Tristan as his own son, alongside his other, with the death of his unborn child and wife during the ambush. The boy grows into a fearless warrior, faithful to his “father” and willing to do anything for Britain. They begin the process once again to unite the tribes against the enemy and because of his maimed hand, Marke sends Tristan out to send a message to the Irish. After killing the King’s second in command, Tristan falls paralyzed by a poison on the fallen man’s sword. Thought dead, his body is sent away with a king’s burial at sea only to be washed ashore on Irish land to be found and nursed to health by the foreign King’s own daughter, Isolde.

Here is where a bond forms between the son and daughter of mortal enemies. They know their love can never succeed and when they part, still don’t really know whom each other is. Only when the Irish King manufactures a contest, for his princess’s hand in marriage, to split the British tribes apart, do they realize their places in court. Tristan fights for his king, Marke, and when victory is his, sees the princess as his love. Now rather than an impossible love from afar, the two must live under the same roof, her Queen, married to the man that raised and loved the boy as his own blood. The rest of the film then shows the power of love and duty and all the conflicts the two have with each other. Tristan’s love for his king and country constantly conflicting with his love of Isolde … attempting to reconcile the two and realize which is the empty shell of life and which the full.

I give a ton of credit to James Franco for really carrying this film as Tristan. His trademark broodiness and stone-faced emotion is in full effect, but the softer moments resonant to make up. This is a warrior fighting for the freedom of a people, so his demeanor is understood, especially with the conflict of heart, tugging at his mind, throughout. As for Isolde, Sophia Myles is perfect. Her beauty and kindness is one thing, but the smarts and philosophical thinking on love and freedom help show the bond the two create. This is a special girl, throwing her birthright as Irish princess out the window in order to live for herself. She may be in love with Tristan, but she also cannot deny the kindness and love from Marke, it is a conflict she must live with too as her marriage is not abusive or repressive, it just isn’t with the man she’d like.

Through all the deception and intrigue going on, between Tristan and Marke, Marke and the traitor in his midst, (Mark Strong in another great turn), and the Irish and British armies, you will not be able to deny the strong will of the British people. When I first saw the trailers I had thought we’d be seeing a standoff between Franco and Rufus Sewell’s Marke, a fight for the girl. This is most definitely not the case. Sewell is absolutely fantastic as Marke, a benevolent ruler who puts the interests of the nation ahead of his own. This is a man who has sacrificed everything and only shown love to those closest to him. This makes the affair between our titular characters that much more important as they risked breaking apart a country. The politics and war add so much to the story, making it one that can be enjoyed as an adventure epic rather than just a fluff piece about love. You men being dragged to see it with the hopes of your date thinking it’s a chick flick will not be disappointed as it is so much more than that.

Yes it is all about the love between two young people caught in the middle of a war, but it also is about the strength of nationality and humankind. The battle scenes are effectively shot, the static shots of the countryside are breathtakingly gorgeous, and the acting superb. Tristan & Isolde is a beautifully composed film visually and thematically that progresses perfectly to its inevitable conclusion. Whether the ending is looked upon as happy or not, it is the right conclusion for the film that preceded it. Every character carries out their arcs correctly and in harmony with their disposition and morals. It’s a highly enjoyable film that really is more than what you can imagine seeing the trailers and marketing. Sure it is Romeo & Juliet-like, but it is also a story of fighting for oneself and his nation, battling for good against oppression, no matter the outcome.

Tristan & Isolde 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

James Franco and Sophia Myles as Tristan and Isolde in The 20th Century Fox’s Tristan & Isolde (2006) Copyright © The 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.


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