Tristan and Isolde: trying and inept

By Azure Gilman

You know this kind of movie—the kind that is so bad that you turn to the poor friend you dragged along with you and say, “I’m so, so sorry.” Yeah, it was kind of like that. When I try to think back to where this movie went wrong, I’m at a loss. Even the things that usually make a bad movie entertaining—battle scenes, cinematography, the occasional comic relief—are either missing entirely or not nearly enough to make up the deficit. I’m not sure which one I want back more, $8.50 or two hours of my life.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Starring James Franco and Sofia Myles, Tristan and Isolde is a story of forbidden love set against the age-old English/Irish conflict. After a skirmish, Tristan, England’s most talented warrior, is believed dead and washes up on a beach to be found by Isolde and her maid. He is nursed back to health by the medicinally inclined Irish princess, and of course, they fall in love. Tristan, however, is in hostile enemy territory, and must leave in a hurry. Through a series of unfortunate events, Isolde is later married to Tristan’s very own Lord, King Marke. Out of common courtesy I won’t ruin the ending for you, but chances are you already know it, and I’m not sure it would make any difference anyway. Suffice to say, trouble ensues.

On a better note, Lord Marke is played by the competent, even talented Rufus Sewell. The beauty of Marke is that you’re not supposed to root for him, but you can’t dislike him either. He is a good man who is accidentally placed in the path of true love. Unfortunately for the film, the subtle balance that this problem offers is toppled when Sewell’s Marke proves so much more compelling that Franco’s Tristan. The film aims to make the audience feel torn, but really, Marke wins the popular vote halfway through the movie.

To be fair, Sofia Myles does a good job as the earnest and passionate Isolde. You’re left wanting a little more, but overall, she did the best she could under the circumstances. Lest we forget, this movie was made by the same man who directed Waterworld—I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her. If Myles had been given a different Tristan to play off, who knows what this movie might have been. As it is, she is forced to create and carry the on-screen emotion all by herself for a very long two hours. The load in this case is just too heavy.

It pains me to say it, but if fault has to be laid on someone’s shoulders, it must be with James Franco. Does anyone remember that James Dean mini-series that was aired a million years ago, and the short-lived Freaks and Geeks? Remember how good he was? We know for a fact that James Franco is a good actor—or at least I thought we did. Maybe the problem is the lack of dialogue on his part, but then again, Heath Ledger managed to pull it off in Brokeback Mountain. His faltering accent is also problematic, but I would even let that slide if he offered something else in exchange. The problem is that he doesn’t offer anything at all. He doesn’t look pained or excited, or even slightly aware that he’s besotted with a woman he can’t have. And before you even ask, he doesn’t have that Russell Crowe quality of simmering emotion beneath a placid surface. He’s pretty much just filler. I’d almost prefer a mannequin labeled “leading man.” At least then you wouldn’t feel cheated. Maybe in five years, we’ll find out on a VH1 special that he was a total drug addict during the filming, hence his lackluster performance. (Well, one can hope.)

You’ll have to trust me on this, but I’m not a snobby movie-goer. I think that some films should just be appreciated as entertainment rather than works of art. But even with my impossibly low standards, this movie could not get its act together. And in case you doubt me, my friend Roshan, the poor girl I practically forced to see this movie with me, has a similar story to tell: “The only thing that eased the pain and suffering of that movie was that boy’s face.” Yes, James Franco is handsome. Yes, this movie has some nice sword tricks and bloodied, burly men. Yes, there is the occasional brief and tasteful sex scene. It’s pretty much everything you’ve seen before, just a little worse. It’s too late for me, and I can accept that. But please, save yourselves.