Paint Your Wagner
Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that's looking to new horizons. As you may have noticed, as far as mainstream cinema goes we are currently becalmed in the post-Oscar, pre-Memorial Day boonies. This is the time of year when the studios traditionally wheel out the fare which they can't see having much success while there's anything more substantial or heavily promoted about: mid-budget thrillers and action movies, horror, offbeat drama and comedies. (There's another patch like this in the autumn when we here in the UK tend to receive any blockbusters that seriously tanked across the Atlantic.) Quite which of these categories Kevin Reynolds' Tristan + Isolde falls I'm not entirely certain, but I'm positive it does trip up somewhere along the line.
Culture vultures will of course recognise this as the title of one of Richard Wagner's grand Teutonic operas, but then again culture vultures almost certainly have better things to do than read 24 Lies A Second. Bearing this in mind, I shall refrain from showing off my in-depth knowledge of the Bayreuth maestro — suffice to say I do a mean summarisation of the plot of the Ring cycle. In any case this is, sadly, not a musical, just a fairly earnest adaptation of the original legend — greenlit, I would suspect, in the wake of the mega-success of Lord of the Rings, the Wagnerian connections of which are fairly well-known.
We find ourselves in the Dark Ages, with a divided Britain cruelly oppressed by the powerful Irish. (Any historical irony present in this scenario is steadfastly ignored by the movie which has its mind on nobler things.) The barons of Albion gather to forge an alliance and free themselves, but - as is traditional - a traitor amongst them has sold them out and the Irish crash the party looking for a fight. (You will, I hope, note that I too am steadfastly ignoring the opportunity to make cheap jokes based on dodgy ethnic stereotypes.) Orphaned in the scrap is Tristan, son of the leader of the Jutes, but he is adopted by the Cornish baron Marke (Rufus Sewell). Ten years later Tristan has grown up into James Franco, who you may recall from the Spider-Man franchise, and very strapping he is too. Equally strapping is Isolde, the lovely daughter of the Irish king - played by Sophia Myles, whom you may recall from the first Underworld, the big-screen Thunderbirds, and, retroactively speaking, this Saturday's episode of Doctor Who.
Well, what follows is extremely convoluted and rather implausible, and heavily reliant on coincidence and people casually popping back and forth across the Irish Sea apparently by rowing boat. But here goes anyway: the King of Ireland promises Isolde's hand in marriage to his chief legbreaker. She is not pleased. But before nuptials can take place said legbreaker pops over to Cornwall to terrorise the natives a bit. But the Cornish have had enough and fight back. Legbreaker dies but not before stabbing Tristan with poisoned blade. Cornish people think Tristan is dead and push him out to sea in burning rowing boat. Boat does not sink but washes up on coast of Ireland where - what are the chances! - Tristan is discovered and secretly nursed back to health by Isolde. Rumpy pumpy ensues. She does not tell him her name in case he gets caught and rats her out. King of Ireland discovers killer of chief legbreaker is somewhere on the loose in Ireland. Isolde warns Tristan to push off still thinking she is trapped in arranged marriage. He goes back to Cornwall in different rowing boat. Separated young lovers brood for a bit. King of Ireland decides to stir British up a bit by making them compete for Isolde's hand and big wad of cash, thinking this will destroy their unity. Tristan comes up with plan to derail this scheme by winning contest on Marke's behalf then splitting the prize between all the British leaders (Marke still gets princess). Despite attempts to fix contest by Irish this plan succeeds but - alas! - too late Tristan realises who Isolde really is. Isolde marries Marke as planned, thus ensuring peace between Britain and Ireland (sh'yeah right!). More rumpy pumpy, between Marke and Isolde this time. Tristan looks tortured and noble (or possibly suffers from wind a lot - Franco's performance makes it difficult to tell)...
...and all this in just the first half! No wonder they had to cut all the songs out. Anyway things progress along fairly predictable lines - conflict of duty and true love, guilty passion, treachery, machiavellian machinations, tragedy, big siege, you know the sort of thing. There is, so far as I can tell, only one proper joke in the whole thing, and not an especially funny one. It does take itself rather seriously, but it at least is rather less cheesetastic than Reynold's previous swashbuckling opus Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves. Historical anachronisms are kept down to an acceptable minimum for the most part, as are silly costumes (that said Rufus Sewell does turn up to his wedding wearing what appears to be a chain-mail beanie). That '+' in the title might suggest this is a radical and bold reimagining for a modern audience, but it's all a bit dour and naturalistic for a movie pitching for the Rings crowd. At least it's better filmed and performed than the terribly similar Sword of Xanten which you may have caught knocking around not long ago.
To be honest, even at two hours this film feels rather rushed and busy, and, crucially, the central romance never really ignites - this despite the fact that virtually the first thing Isolde does on meeting Tristan is to take all her clothes off and start rubbing herself up against him, Dark Age folk presumably being less inclined to beat about the bush (so to speak). What little sympathy the couple generate is solely down to Myles' performance, who is a radiant screen presence with definite star quality. Franco's a bit of a charisma black hole, though - he broods well but that's about it. Noteworthy also is Myles' Irish accent, which for once does not suggest an upbringing in County Leprechaun. Sadly all the British characters stick with velly proper RSC English - clearly America is not yet ready for the wonders of the Cornish accent, and come to think of it, given his origins on the map Reynolds thoughtfully provides, Franco should be Scouse!
This is a film without any really big names, but there are lots of faces you may recognise in it. Rufus Sewell does an extremely decent job as Marke, and there's a solid turn from a wigged-up Mark Strong as a treacherous Glastafarian (possibly not precisely the correct name for his tribe, but you get the gist). It doesn't completely fall down in any department, and in some - art direction, cinematography, fight choreography - it's quietly rather impressive. But it never really hooks the audience or involves them in the story. It's watchable enough, but I doubt it will linger long in the memory. A few enormous women in horned helmets belting out tunes might have made all the difference.