January 19, 2006


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FILM: Tristan & Isolde (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

If you’re going to go the route of young lovers kept apart by politics during Medieval times you could do worse than Tristan & Isolde, a cheesy swashbuckler about the pouty English warrior and his sassy Irish girlfriend.

And, boy, does James Franco pout like a champion. He throws his back into it, giving us a pout that uses not just a highly kissable lip but also his deeply furrowed brows, his shoulders and the perfect sullen tousle of his Dark Ages skater-boy cut.

By about halfway through the movie, Tristan has good reason to be pouty, having been essentially grounded by his adoptive dad, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell). Tristan, in fact, had something of a bummer childhood. He is orphaned at about 11-ish by Irish soldiers seeking to keep the English tribes from uniting. Marke saves young Tristan from death, losing his hand in the process, and — what with Marke’s own pregnant wife having been killed as well — takes in Tristan as his own. Nine years later, Tristan is a strapping young man who is still helping Marke beat back the Irish. During one such battle, Tristan is believed to be killed and is given a hero’s send-off: a boat full of greenery is pushed out to sea and set ablaze. Apparently, however, Tristan’s greenery is still a little too green and it doesn’t burn, allowing the not-quite-dead warrior to make it to Ireland.

He is found on the beach by Isolde (Sophia Myles), daughter of the Irish king. Minus the Doc Martens and the applications to art school, Isolde is your modern hippy alterna-gal (reads poetry, studies herbal medicines, wears flowy dresses). She spends her free time hanging out near the grave of her mom (who died about the same time Tristan’s parents did) and throwing daggery looks at her total jerk of a dad (David Patrick O’Hara). She’s especially peeved when he informs her that he’s given her to one of his lieutenants. Around the time the big lug is expected to return, Isolde heads for the beach, hoping perhaps that she’ll find some sort of transport away from her arranged marriage. It’s a little surprising then that when she finds the overturned boat carrying Tristan she doesn’t just push his waterlogged body out and load herself and her maid-in-waiting in. Instead, perhaps having got a glimpse of that pouty mouth, she drags him into a cave where she can offer him healing, Marvin Gaye-style.

Being as they are both by far the most attractive people in the British Isles of the post-Roman era, they don’t get too specific as to their identities and just make the PG-13 most of their time together. The discovery of Tristan’s boat is, however, a last call bell that cuts their romance short. He returns to England and Isolde pretends not to be elated when her father tells her that her fiancé has been killed in battle.

But, before she can get too excited about her death-won freedom, her dad announces a new scheme: he’s going to hold a tournament with all the English tribes and the winner will get to marry her. She all but spits fire when she arrives at the tournament but then she sees the possibility of salvation: why it’s Tristan, competing on behalf of Cornwall. Isolde, who just can not catch a brake, has one moment of happiness (and probably, you know, relief) at the prospect of actually marrying the man she shtupped in the Cave of Love before her father pissily informs her to keep her knickers on, Tristan won her for Lord Marke.

We take a while to get to this point and a while to go from the first awkward moments of Isolde being Tristan’s sort-of adopted mom to them having a lovely romance novel affair. From there, the movie dawdles a bit unnecessarily over all the illicit-romance angst. We know that everybody’s going to find out, that we’ll get a big battle, that Lord Poutypants will make with the swordplay and the stabbing and that our lovers won’t be buying a big hut in the Saxon suburbs.

I’m not looking to get my history from Tristan & Isolde nor am I expecting a new take on the well-worn lovers-from-warring-clans plot. In fact I had no expectations whatsoever for this film — a good way to go into it. Expect nothing and the satisfactory result of all these renaissance fair trappings will catch you nicely by surprise. The attitudes and actions of these characters are at least as realistic as anything on The O.C. and the good-in-spite-of-the-silliness performances of supporting characters such as Sewell make even the sillier aspects of the story enjoyable.

Pay for it? I wouldn’t recommend anything that extreme. But when Tristan & Isolde makes its inevitable HBO debut in three months, it’s worth not flipping away.


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