Despite the sea of schlock that surrounds the subject, all of the best and most famous stories of great romances testify to the essential impossibility of anything like a lasting love. The common thread winding through all those tales --- of Héloise and Abélard, Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet --- suggests that the only love that endures forever is unrequited love, lost love, doomed love.
The unlikely new movie Tristan & Isolde, yet another variation on a much told tale of love and death, once again underlines the truth of that belief, but includes a number of new wrinkles without somehow in any discernible way improving upon the ancient material.
Set in the Dark Ages, as the first of many paragraphs of on-screen prose helpfully informs us, the movie shows a Britain sunk into chaos after the fall of Rome and the departure of the occupying legions. The once unified island has disintegrated into a group of separate regions, ruled by a number of competing tribes whose names the characters reel off throughout the film --- the Picts, the Jutes, the Celts, the Angles, the Saxons, etc. Worse, the king of Ireland, just across the water, who dreams big, sends raiding parties on the usual missions of pillage, rape, and slaughter, ultimately hoping to conquer the whole island and its warring tribes.
The movie opens with such a raid, where the Irish brutally slay the parents of young Tristan (Thomas Sangster), and cut off the hand of his Uncle Mark (Rufus Sewell), ruler of Cornwall, who saves the boy and raises him like his own son in his fort in Cornwall. Tristan grows into a fine young man (James Franco) and a brave warrior, the apple of his uncle's eye. Wounded by a poisoned sword in another attack and assumed to be dead, he floats on his funeral boat to Ireland, where the beautiful Isolde (Sophia Myles), daughter of the evil king, heals him with a special antidote (most versions of the story feature a magic potion of some kind), and of course the handsome young people fall in love.
In keeping with the tragic circumstances of the legend, when he returns to Cornwall, Tristan must aid his uncle's cause, in this case fighting in a tournament to win the fair Isolde as Mark's bride, all in the service of a complicated stratagem of the duplicitous Irish king. After the marriage of Isolde and Mark the movie settles into a sort of tedious intrigue, in which the young lovers steal moments of passion together while Mark preoccupies himself with the task of uniting England once again.
A sort of double treachery, on the one hand working against Mark from within his family and on the other revealing Tristan's trysts with Isolde, not only endangers the kingdom but of course alienates the young man from his uncle. Despite reconciliations and last-ditch heroics, the whole sorry mess ends, as it must, with tragedy for the beautiful and doomed young couple, thus celebrating the Liebestod --- literally "love-death" --- that occurs in all the versions of the story in many eras and languages and of course in Wagner's famous opera.
The filmmakers, I suppose, deserve some credit for tackling a legend more literary than sensational and attempting to place it in some sort of useful temporal context, but beyond that effort, Tristan & Isolde often seems laughable in its earnest little history lessons. The frequent prose interpretations on the screen, printed in a barely readable, pseudo-medieval script, vary between the redundant and the ridiculous. When Mark unfolds a perfectly accurate map of England, the Dark Ages seem much more advanced in cartography and literacy than most of us previously imagined; and when Isolde reads what sounds very like polished and intricate 17th-century metaphysical poetry to her beloved, the whole anachronistic business simply disintegrates into sheer silliness.
In a cold, damp England where the sun rarely shines, the director makes the Dark Ages look very dark indeed. The dull gloom of the interior and exterior settings apparently seeps into the actors as well, since they mostly talk in sullen, angry tones and move with a brutish languor. None of the actors distinguish themselves, but then again, the material hardly allows them much beyond mere emoting without a good deal of conviction.
That sound you hear may be Richard Wagner spinning in his grave, possibly accompanied by a Heldentenor and a chorus of Valkyries.
Tristan & Isolde (PG-13), directed by Kevin Reynolds, is playing at Culver Ridge Cinema, Eastview Mall, Henrietta 18, Tinseltown, and Webster 12.