Love stories come and go, but few have the durability of "Tristan and Isolde." Everyone from German Richard Wagner to Briton Richard Burton (who starred in a 1981 version called "Lovespell") has been fascinated by this Dark Ages tale of star-crossed passion and devotion that would not die.
Director Kevin Reynolds is not exactly in Wagner's league, but he's turned out a satisfactory version of this story of manly men and fervent women. This "Tristan" is a pleasantly old-fashioned epic romance, a bit ungainly but finally the equivalent of having one of those wonderful adventure books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth or Howard Pyle come alive on the screen.
Reynolds has been attracted to the epic before -- often with dire results: Witness "Waterworld," "Rapa Nui" and "The Count of Monte Cristo." But in this case, several factors seem to have helped him avoid going too far over the top.
Screenwriter Dean Georgaris (Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate") has done a convincing job with the script. This more realistic, pared "Tristan" does away with the pestilent dragon of the original legend as well as the love potion of Wagner's opera. It also adds a political element by presenting the romance against the backdrop of the weak and preyed-upon tribes of Britain -- Jutes, Angles, Saxons and Celts, among others -- yearning to unite against the region's Dark Ages dominant power, Ireland.
This "Tristan" has also done well in casting lovers who really seem to care about each other. Though he has a tendency to look pouty and sullen, a holdover, perhaps, from an earlier role as James Dean, James Franco is appropriately handsome and dashing as the great warrior Tristan.
Even better is Sophia Myles (soon to be seen in Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential"), graceful and luminous as the Irish princess who is the other half of the love match.
"Tristan and Isolde" introduces its protagonists as survivors of difficult childhoods. Tristan's parents were killed in an Irish attack and he was raised as a son by Britain's powerful Lord Marke (an especially effective Rufus Sewell, Nixonian 5 o'clock shadow and all). Isolde's mother was felled by "ill vapors," leaving her at the mercy of her brutal father, the Irish King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara), an early practitioner of royal realpolitik who is not above promoting a politically expedient match to a huge bruiser for his only child.
The fates, however, have different ideas. Cute-meet circumstances conspire to place a seriously wounded Tristan on a deserted Irish beach, where Isolde finds him and secretly nurses him back to health without telling him of her royal status. Naturally, the pair falls in love -- placing healing leaves on someone's wounds tends to do that to people -- but, as one of them says, "we both know it cannot be." Still, neither Tristan nor Isolde can foresee the way a complex web of events will create the crisis of ardor versus duty that has made the story of their love a touchstone for generations.
"Tristan and Isolde" is not all love; in fact, it features large chunks of professionally done action, including fierce attacks, clandestine ambushes and copious amounts of smiting enemies with mighty swords. And the convincing look of the film, the success of cinematographer Arthur Reinhart and production designer Mark Geraghty in making us feel we're in a reasonable fantasy facsimile of Britain circa AD 500, is also a plus.
Realism, however, goes only so far in "Tristan and Isolde." The happy couple inexplicably have access to a John Donne poem written a thousand years in the future, and clunky lines of dialogue on the order of "this is a dangerous game you're playing" and the ever-popular "God, what have I done?" make frequent appearances. This "Tristan" has its slightly silly moments, but rather like those fondly remembered epics of Hollywood past, its energy and entertainment value carry the day.
'Tristan and Isolde'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense battle sequences and some sexuality.
Times guidelines: Not excessively blood-thirsty.
Released by 20th Century Fox. Director Kevin Reynolds. Producers Moshe Diamant, Elie Samaha, Lisa Ellzey, Giannina Facio. Executive producers Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Jim Lemley, Frank Hubner, John Hardy, Matthew Stillman. Screenplay by Dean Georgaris. Cinematographer Arthur Reinhart. Editor Peter Boyle. Costumes Maurizio Millenotti. Music Anne Dudley. Production designer Mark Geraghty. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. In general release.