Before Romeo and Juliet, there was -- a stupid pair of kids
Tristan and Isolde,
that is. (Oh, sorry, the official title has a groovy ampersand, doesn't it?)
This film spends ages trying to sell us on the true
love between the namesake characters, and fails to clinch the deal. This is partly because the overwhelming nature of the love between them is never properly portrayed -- as it is, it might just be a fleeting combination of hot bods and Florence Nightingale syndrome -- and partly because the rival in the triangle, King Marke, comes out as so much more interesting (and overwhelmingly hot) than the squishy Tristan that one can't help thinking that any woman who wouldn't choose him is an idiot.
"Is there anything I can do... to make you happier?"
They've dumped any hint of magic and mystery from the story; the magic potion is gone (even though I fully expected it after the revelation that Isolde is skilled in herb-lore).
Instead, Tristan becomes the ward of King Marke of Cornwall after an Irish raid kills his family. The Irish, despite seeming not much less ragtag than the Britons to look at, hold an unholy sway over the Picts, Angles and Saxons, demanding tribute and boating over at intervals to slice up the natives. (The Irish are visibly evil because they all look weaselly, as opposed to the Britons, who possess a really unfair number of longhaired and decorative young warriors. The British traitor is plainly marked by his similarly weaselly demeanour.)
King Marke is desperately trying to pull all the squabbling barons together to stand against the Hibernian threat, but every time he gets them all in one spot, the traitor mentioned above betrays the gathering, and the Irish boat over to wreck the party. (How this is accomplished, in the days before shortwave radio, is never fully explained, but it's only one of the anachronisms of the production.)
Tristan is his main champion (to the distress of Marke's sister's son, who feels slighted). When a bunch of Cornish women are captured by the Irish and taken off for Unspeakable Purposes, Tristan comes up with a brilliant(?) guerrilla plan to save them. In this insignificant little scuffle in the forest, he's wounded by Morholt, the vicious Irish champeen who poisons his blades, but he kills Morholt as well. Sadly, Morholt's anachronistic poison (ol' Morholt also chomps on yohimbine, to "make a hard man harder", speaking of temporal and geographical anomalies) causes Tristan to fall into a deathlike sleep, and his comrades send him off in a burning barge.
Fortunately, the waves (presumably) douse the flames, and ol' Tris gets washed up on the Irish shore, conveniently close to where the king's daughter Isolde is wandering, mourning over her fate (which is to be the carrot given to Morholt for services rendered).
She saves him (herb-lore) and through some sort of magical mental link, reads him John Donne (I thought at the time it sounded a little off, but didn't recognise it -- shame on me; I found out from another website. John Donne. Please. As if there weren't enough lovely ancient Irish lovesongs about in the heroic verses. Or something lusty in Latin. Preferably the original. Hah! Let's not go into the "reading" part. They both can read; how odd.) Then they shag in the little stone hut on the shore. Then Morholt is reported dead (as the ragged remains of the Irish force, contemptuously sent back to report by the Britons, return in a little shell of a boat). Isolde hastily packs Tristan off, in another little tiny boat (is Ireland really that easily accessible by water? I thought that was the reason it didn't get conquered by the roamin' Romans). Only omission? She hasn't told him her name, or who she is, because of the danger.
Back in Cornwall, nobody asks Tristan where he was, or how he came back from the dead, because he's Brooding and Mysterious (which Franco doesn't do very well) and they're just so happy to have him back (why? I don't know).
The Irish king, full of plottiness, decides, since Morholt is dead, that he'll get rid of his jade of a daughter some other way. Yes! He'll have a competition for all of that British lot, with the prize his daughter and a huuuge tract o' land, and they'll all come over and fight for her! But he'll fix the fight so that his good buddy the Traitor wins, and all will be lovely in the misted green hills.
On hearing of this, Tristan says he'll win his beloved foster father King Marke a bride, AND unite the warring countries. Good plan, says Marke, though being old and ugly (not really) and maimed (he lost a hand, saving Tristan, who doesn't, in my opinion, seem properly grateful) he fears that a young and lovely girl won't care for him.
And off goes Tristan. Isolde, sulking at being offered like a prize pig, veils her head when she sits over the lists, so he doesn't know her. She knows him, but figures he's there for her own sake. Tristan wins his way through the tournament by doughty deeds of arms; the weasel traitor wins because his fights are fixed -- and when they face each other, Tristan, despite being worn out from all the previous battles, cleans the traitor's clock. Moral: cheaters never win.
And Isolde hurtles down the stairs. "You won me!" "For another man," says Tristan, beginning a movie's worth of soggy petulance, as tears dampen his eyes.
He brings her back. Marke marries her, and falls crashingly in love, treating her with tender care. Despite that, and despite the fact that both she and Tristan know their duty in the whole mess, she's still creeping off to the ruins to get off with Mr. Pouty. Whatever. It ends with Isolde and Tristan dying, and Marke living happily ever after (though without a wife) so that was something.
Visually speaking, there's some nice Dark Ages scenery going on, nice round Celtic huts over in Ireland and wooden forts on the British side, and some splendid Irish hills, and I liked the early costumes, earthy Celtic dealies. King Marke, however, builds a somewhat anomalous stone castle, and we seem to slide gently about five centuries further on during those years, while the costumes also get kind of shaky. And there's the John Donne.
Verdict: it was entertaining in its way, but I'd have taken King Marke myself, and left Tristan to stew. And that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the story on the part of writer and film-makers.
splogged by compass-rose
at 8:44 PM EST
Updated: 27 January 2006 4:27 PM EST