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Issue #129 - May 2006

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Insipid Romance, Arthurian Style

By Karina Meerman

Tristan & Isolde is a love story from early European times. A Romeo and Juliet from the Dark Ages, when Britain was nothing but a collection of Celts, Picts and Saxons, and The Netherlands were a soggy strip of land where occupying Romans were getting stuck in the mud.

Once a love poem; now a film set in Cornwall, in 600 AD or thereabouts. Britain is divided into tribes, who are all at war with Ireland. The Cornish are sort of ruled by the noble Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), who wants a united Britain and is presented like a King Arthur avant-la-lettre. He rescues the young Tristan from a burning village and takes him home to be raised as his own. The Cornish are often plagued by small groups of Irish warriors who attack villages and brutally kill men, rape women and take young people back to Ireland for all sorts of unpleasantness. Cornish men are therefore well trained to fight. I couldnít quite figure out what the women do. Marry the men, I think.

The young Tristan is a lovely blond kid, who shows surprising fierceness when pushed far enough. He grows up to become a tall, brooding young man, played by James Franco (Harry Osbourne in Spider-Man). During an attack by the Irish, Tristan is wounded and presumed dead. He is placed in a funeral boat and drifts across the sea to Ireland (by modern day ferry this takes two hours, by the way). There, the lovely Isolde (Sophia Myles) is taking a walk along a bright sunny beach with her maid Bragnae (Bronagh Gallagher, one of The Commitments). She finds the boat, rescues Tristan, cures him, nurses him back to health and they fall madly in love. A romantic few days pass on that beach, with her reading clever poetry to him and him seemingly not understanding a word of it.

But as we have known from the start, their love cannot be. He is the enemy and she is promised to the brute Morholt (very well portrayed, that one). Itís back in his boat, and Tristan returns to Cornwall brooding heavily. But thanks to the Irish King Donnchadh (a very Scottish sounding David OíHara) he can return to Ireland pretty quickly. Or rather I guess pretty quickly, because the flow of time is not easily followed in this film.

King Donnchadh wants to divide the British tribes with a cunning plan. He organises a fighting contest and the winner will receive land and his daughter Isolde. Greed will bring them down and trickery will crush them for sure! Tristan, who doesnít know Isoldeís real name, decides to fight for Lord Marke and travels to Ireland in the hope of meeting the girl he loves. Imagine his surprise when he wins her ó for another man.

And so Isolde moves to Cornwall and thereís more brooding for Tristan. By this time, he was really getting on my nerves. He hangs around corners, glaring at her like a stalker with tears in his eyes. He says petulant things like "you seem to really like being married to him," while it was obvious to us in the audience that the wedding night was a horror for her, no matter how nice her husband. I found myself wishing someone would kick the spoilt brat, but Isolde just loved him more for it. Shame, because otherwise she was an intelligent, free spirited girl who deserved much better than any of the men who populated that film. Well, apart from Lord Marke maybe.

Despite feelings of loyalty, duty and honor, the doomed pair start their secret meetings and are very much in love. But wait! Thereís a wicked man who plots and schemes and wants to use their love to gain power over all of Britain! O no! Will he succeed? Will the love of Tristan and Isolde survive? And what about the future of this fragile, unified Britain?

Pardon my flippancy, but at this point, I didnít care so much anymore about the love-struck couple. Itís not because Tristan & Isolde is a bad film. I liked the way it looked, the sets, the lighting, the scenery. There was none of the polished Hollywoodness, everything was nice and grimy looking as if authentic. (At the same time I was glad that I do not have the historical knowledge to distinguish fact from film; I just sat back and enjoyed the whole thing as fantasy). I loved the fighting scenes; they were not massive or extremely bloody. They were tight, fierce and accompanied by good music. I really liked Isolde and her maid Bragnae. I kept expecting the latter to burst out into curses like she did so well in The Commitments.

But the men in this film! O dearie me. Short-sighted, egocentric, selfish, dumbÖ Even Tristan. Especially Tristan. Thereís a point in the film where he seems to do nothing but pine. For hours, making me wish they cut that down to five minutes. James Franco doesnít have the best script by far, but thatís not all of it. I think itís my age. I am nearly 40 and dear James does not increase my blood temperature by even a fraction of a degree. Yes, heís tall and he has lovely hair, but he also has that boy band aura about him that says all cuddles and no sex. Not a man Iíd cross the sea for.

Tristan & Isolde is entertaining, if you donít think too hard about it. There are some very moving scenes and some profound things said. As I wrote earlier, itís pleasant to the eye and the political intrigues make it more than "just a love story". But for me, the passion was not where it should have been.

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