Over the centuries, the legend of Tristram and Iseult has fueled the derring-do of King Arthur, aroused Richard Wagner's operatic thunder, driven poets as diverse as Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Edwin Arlington Robinson to the heights of passion, and helped stock the back streets of Manhattan with companies of leaping Jets and Sharks. It's actually a complex cycle of tales, from largely Celtic sources, that has inspired at least two dozen previous movies, beginning in 1920. Now, the secret lovers of old are back on the big screen — in a sword-clanging, skull-bashing war epic that will probably appeal more to fans of the Ultimate Fighting Championships than to students of medieval myth. Castle and forest are under constant, fiery siege in this bombastic Tristan & Isolde. For better or worse, forbidden romance plays second fiddle.
Originally, co-producer Ridley Scott planned to direct the film himself in the late '70s (he went for Alien instead), but that task has now fallen to Kevin Reynolds, the man who gave us the fiasco Waterworld a decade ago and the umpteenth version of The Count of Monte Cristo in 2002. Reynolds' vision of cinematic drama combines plenty of casual violence with the occasional make-out scene, and that's precisely what we get here — the Dark Ages bloody in fang and claw, but decorated with golden-tressed maidens who never smudge their mascara or rumple their brocaded frocks.
The beautiful young lovers of legend have taken so many forms over the years that there's no use arguing with the approach of their current interpreter, screenwriter Dean Georgaris (The Manchurian Candidate — 2004 version). This Tristan, portrayed by Spider-Man co-star James Franco, is a traumatized orphan who's seen his father, a tribal baron, murdered by the marauding Irish. Nonetheless, he grows up to be one very tough customer with a mace or a broadsword, even though his delicate good looks suggest a young Warren Beatty. Mr. T's full of nobility and a sense of duty — especially when it comes to his liege, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) and the sacred mission of uniting Britannia's bickering tribes, a rough stewpot of assorted Celts, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who can't get it together long enough to resist the Irish hordes across the sea. Isolde (the gorgeous British starlet Sophia Myles), only daughter of the cruel and devious Irish King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara), has issues of her own — not least the death of her beloved mother and her father's intention to marry her off to a crude, bullet-headed thug who's the size of a defensive tackle. But Isolde's as independent of mind as Tristan, and they can't help falling for each other — despite the considerable political differences of their families.
At least one version of the Tristram and Iseult myth has the young lovers drinking a magic potion that unites them for eternity, but Reynolds and Georgaris dispense with that in favor of good nursing care. Isolde finds the battle-wounded Tristan on her lonely stretch of beachfront, drags him back to the hovel, and gets him well with a little help from her lady-in-waiting. In the process, the kids become endlessly committed to each other. As ancient poetry, honor, and international intrigue would have it, though, she eventually has to marry the Briton king — Tristan's best friend. That leads inevitably to adultery. While King Marke's rough-and-ready soldiers are tearing into their suckling pig and swilling big goblets of wine, Tristan and Isolde are usually grabbing a quickie under the old Roman bridge outside the castle. And that can only spell trouble once a couple of the rat-faced traitors at court catch on to their trysting.
The movie's ferocious, if sometimes cheesy, battle scenes are more impressive than its romantic interludes, largely because Georgaris' grasp of language leaves so much to be desired. There's something to be said for modernizing diction and streamlining old style, but when the most profound utterance the heroine can manage is “Why long for things if they're not meant to be ours?” you may find yourself longing for the poetic splendor of Romeo and Juliet. Visually, the movie is often compelling, thanks to the rough period reality captured by cinematographer Arthur Reinhart. Isolde and Marke's night wedding scene, complete with flaming barges, is especially beautiful, and the final assault on King Marke's castle is as gruesomely thrilling as anything Scott came up with in Kingdom of Heaven. In the end, though, the filmmakers strike a bad bargain between action and myth: In their obvious attempt to shoo everyone into the tent — romantic and roughneck alike — they don't serve either end of the spectrum very well, unless the vision of our hero slinging the bloody severed head of an enemy from drawbridge to moat is the one thing you long for.