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Medieval period piece offers thrills, romance

Erin McGinn | Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Most people know about the romance of Romeo and Juliet or the legendary love between King Arthur and Guinevere, but fewer are aware of the mythic tale of Tristan and Isolde.

This movie, based on a Celtic fable, begins in England after the fall of Rome and during a time when England is struggling to find its own foothold. Standing in the way is the King of Ireland, who mercilessly controls the land of Briton.

Lord Marke of Cornwall (Rufus Sewell, “A Knight’s Tale”) wants to keep the tribes of Briton united to eventually fight King Donnchadh of Ireland (David Patrick O’Hara) for their own land. The first scene of “Tristan & Isolde” depicts a brutal Irish invasion where most of Lord Marke’s family and nearly all of the tribe leaders are slain. Tristan, a young boy at the time, was witness to the brutality – including the murder of his own parents. Lord Marke immediately takes him in and raises him to become an honest and loyal crusader for the cause of England’s freedom.

Years pass by and Lord Marke, aided by the now-grown Tristan (James Franco, “The Great Raid”), is still trying to unite the tribes of Briton into one land in to stand against the Irish. After a series of battles and events, the injured Tristan winds up under the care of Isolde (Sophia Myles, “Underworld”), the daughter of King Donnchadh of Ireland. Tristan and Isolde keep their true identities hidden from the other, and their forbidden love flourishes.

Once Tristan returns to Briton, he agrees to fight in representation of Lord Marke in a tournament held in Ireland, where the winner is given the hand of the Irish princess, Isolde. Tristan wins the tournament and must give his beloved over to his adoptive father. Their love must be continually kept secret and is forbidden more than ever before. The second half of the movie consists of their dangerous love affair in Briton and the continual trials of Briton to become one body against the Irish.

Producer Ridley Scott was fascinated by the story of a tragic love that could never be. He worked on the idea for years, initially intending to direct it himself. Once the screenplay was written by Dean Georgaris (“The Manchurian Candidate”), Scott asked Kevin Reynolds to handle the directing duties. Although Reynolds didn’t find favor with his epic “Waterworld,” his historically-themed films such as “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” have helped him learn how to create compelling worlds of warring nations in earlier centuries.

“Tristan and Isolde” attempts to please all parties viewing the movie. The romantic viewers are given love scenes and become involved in the doomed romance. The movie also relishes in violent battle scenes between the tribes of Briton and the Irish. While each group of scenes have their own merit, the trouble comes in the transition between the scenes. The movie feels uneven at times when it switches back and forth between the two moods.

The performances of the actors are good, but not outstanding. The truly standout performance belongs to Rufus Sewell, who plays Lord Marke. What really draws the viewers into the love triangle is that Sewell portrays a truly likeable character. While the audience longs for Tristan and Isolde to be together, the viewers are also sympathetic to the plight of Lord Marke. James Franco is a very attractive Tristan, and while he is convincing, he isn’t very compelling – although this is more due to a lack of character development in the script rather than Franco’s performance. Myles’ Isolde is pretty, but again, there is a lack of deep character development.

Overall, “Tristan & Isolde” is a good romance with plenty of adventure and battles to entertain both sexes, though it doesn’t amount to much more than that.