The legend of Tristan and Isolde, like many old tales, is shrouded in mystery. There were many versions of this story before the invention of film, and many more thereafter. But there don’t appear to have been any significant English-language films about these doomed lovers since the early 1980s, when two such films appeared almost simultaneously. One, Lovespell, starred Richard Burton as King Mark and Kate Mulgrew, now best known as the prickly Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, as his adulterous wife Isolde. Her lover, Tristan, was played by Nicholas Clay, who seems to have had a monopoly back then on conflicted, amorous knights; that same year, he also played Sir Lancelot in Excalibur.
The time may be ripe, then, for a new movie about these passionate figures of folklore, but Tristan + Isolde is not the best that one could have hoped for. It’s not that the film is particularly bad; it just isn’t all that good. Much of it is predictable and pedestrian, right from the opening scenes, in which a young Tristan (Love Actually’s Thomas Sangster) accompanies his father to a meeting of British chieftains during the early Dark Ages. It seems the Irish are dominating and oppressing the Brits — now there’s a switch! — and the leaders of the Picts, the Jutes, the Angles, the Saxons, the Celts, and sundry other ethnic groups believe it is time for their people to unite against the common enemy. The way Tristan’s father speaks so hopefully to his son, you just know he’s going to die — and sure enough, the Irish attack and scatter the Brits violently. Tristan loses both of his parents, and Lord Marke of Cornwall (Rufus Sewell) loses his hand while saving the boy.
You might think that Tristan would have a lot of psychological trauma to deal with, after this event. After all, not only does he lose his family, but he should be able to intuit that his father was killed precisely because he tried to save his son; likewise, Marke lost his hand precisely because Tristan wandered into the path of danger. But while Tristan is obviously sad, he betrays no sign of guilt, either as a boy or, later, as a man; the film is too busy moving on to the next thing. Marke takes Tristan home to Cornwall and raises him like a son, and together, they rebuild their village — a collection of wooden, thatched structures built over the stone ruins of a city that the Romans left behind a century or two ago.
Years pass, Tristan (now played by James Franco) becomes a man, and the Irish decide it’s time to attack Cornwall again and take some more of its citizens as slaves. To make a long story short, Tristan proves himself in battle, but thanks to a poisoned sword, his friends give him up for dead. Tristan and the body of one of his other fallen comrades are sent out to sea in burning boats, but somehow Tristan comes out unscathed on the other side of the water, in Ireland, where he is found and nursed back to health by Isolde (Sophia Myles) and her maid Bragnae (Bronagh Gallagher). So much time spent in such close physical proximity — the camera lingers on Franco’s naked, bandaged torso — leads to romance, and sex, and poetry readings. But eventually Tristan returns home. And then, wouldn’t you know it, Isolde’s father Donnchadh (David O’Hara) — who just happens to be the Irish king who has subdued the Brits — gives her to Marke, as part of a ruse to trick the British into thinking that there can be peace between them. And it’s up to Tristan to escort her back!
The story so far is actually a fair bit more complicated than this, and there are many more plot twists yet to come. So it’s a good thing the actors invest their roles with as much feeling and integrity as they do. Sewell, so often cast as the bad guy, gets to play someone whose biggest flaw is his ability to trust those he cares for most; and Myles is fairly compelling as the grief-stricken romantic who finds herself caught between two men. Franco ably communicates both the love Tristan feels for his surrogate father and the commitment he feels toward his duties as a knight, but alas, it is not so clear what he feels for Isolde; in his efforts to communicate the character’s inner pain, Franco comes across as mopey and aloof, not unlike the spoiled rich boy he plays in the Spider-Man movies. He also sports the iffiest English accent since Kevin Costner starred in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Purists might also complain that this film deprives the legend of its more mythic elements, which include a love potion and a dragon, or that the characters never seem to have to deal with certain issues that would have been rather important back then, like the fact that Isolde is not a virgin on her wedding night. The film does have its merits, though. I rather like the way Polish cinematographer Artur Reinhart (Children of Dune) plays with light and shadow, especially in the film’s closing moments, and when the torches carried by enemy troops are glimpsed through the trees. And however modernized the film might be, its emphasis on the struggle between passion and duty does pose an interesting challenge to the do-whatever-feels-good approach preferred by our culture. Tristan + Isolde isn’t the sort of film you’d go out of your way for, but you could certainly do a lot worse.
2 stars (out of 4)
Talk About It
1. Isolde says that duties, without love, “are not life. They are the shells of life.” Do you agree or disagree? How do her remarks compare to, say, what Paul says about the essential centrality of love in 1 Corinthians 13? Are there times when we have to follow our duty, even though we may not love doing it? Where do duties come from?
2. What kind of love does Isolde have in mind? Are there any other kinds of love that she is forgetting? Do you think her relationship with Tristan is especially loving? What about her relationship with Marke? How does Marke express his love?
3. Why do you think Isolde lies to Tristan about her name, when they first meet? Would you have lied in her place? How do secrets and lies complicate things for these characters? If you were Tristan, would you have told Marke about your relationship with Isolde? Would openness and honesty have excused what the characters do? What might have happened if they’d been open and honest?
4. One of the British lords says that a man who can’t govern his own family is unfit to govern a kingdom. Is it fair of him to judge Marke this way? Does Marke share any responsibility for the affair that transpires between Isolde and Tristan? How does this compare to biblical principles (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:5)? Are there ever exceptions?
The Family Corner
For parents to consider
Tristan + Isolde is rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences and some sexuality. There is much slashing and stabbing, including the onscreen amputation of a hand and the offscreen decapitation of a corpse, though very little blood is shown. There are several discrete scenes of Isolde in bed with Tristan or her husband; there’s no explicit nudity, but there is cleavage and brief glimpse of a backside. In one scene, two women remove their clothes to keep a sick man warm, but again, it’s non-explicit. The dialogue includes a mainly neutral reference to the convents sponsored by “the new religion,” presumably meaning Christianity, and we see a pagan Irish burial ceremony, as well as British wedding and coronation ceremonies of uncertain religious background.
— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.