If dire expectations are generated by a throwaway early-January release of an upscale historical epic, there is a mild surprise in store with “Tristan & Isolde,” a handsomely produced and sporadically rousing re-retelling of the ancient Celtic legend about star-crossed lovers. This understated period drama may lack sufficient star power and emotional wallop to score breakthrough success with mainstream auds during its domestic theatrical run, but pic could find a warmer response in the same international markets where “Kingdom of Heaven” redeemed itself last year.
“Heaven” helmer Ridley Scott reportedly developed “Tristan & Isolde” for nearly two decades as a dream project. But even though he’s credited here as executive producer — along Tony Scott, his brother and Scott Free Prods. partner — directorial chores have fallen to Kevin Reynolds (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “The Count of Monte Cristo”), who is no stranger to period pics involving sword-swinging and cross-bowing.
Working from a solid screenplay by Dean Georgaris ( “Manchurian Candidate” remake), Reynolds goes for brisk pacing and straightforward storytelling. He hits the mark more often than not, although he never really plumbs the tragic depths of the mythic tale that has inspired everything from a grand opera by Richard Wagner to, more recently, a trilogy of popular novels by Rosalind Miles.
In the Dark Ages according to Reynolds and Georgaris, England is an unstable land where rival tribes squabble ceaselessly after the fall of the Roman Empire. Irish king Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara) actively encourages the instability — all the better to sustain Ireland’s rule over England — and occasionally sends his troops across the water to crush any attempts by the squabblers to forge alliances.
During an attack on a unification conference led by Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), Irish soldiers kill the parents of a youngster named Tristan (Thomas Sangster). Marke takes the orphaned child home. But when the adult Tristan (James Franco) leads an attack on Irish invaders, he’s wounded with a poison-drenched sword, and presumed dead. His companions rather too hastily place his body in a boat, and set the craft ablaze as it drifts away.
A miraculously unscorched Tristan is washed ashore on the Irish coast, where he’s found and nursed back to health by beautiful Isolde (Sophia Myles). Trouble is, Isolde just happens to King Donnchadh’s daughter, and Tristan remains ignorant of her lineage when he sets sail home to England. But when he returns, to compete as Marke’s proxy in a tournament held by Donnchadh, Tristan learns the truth.
Isolde is the first prize in the tournament, but even though Tristan wins, under the rules, the victory means Isolde is betrothed to Marke.
For the next hour or so, Reynolds and Georgaris play the romantic triangle for all it’s worth. But Franco is a bit too much the moist-eyed mope as Tristan, and his performance is too repetitious. Nonetheless, he is convincing in the rough-and-tumble action sequences capably staged by “Braveheart” stunt coordinator Nick Powell.
Myles reveals a few more colors on her palette while playing Isolde as an impulsive yet intelligent woman torn between duty and passion. Sewell subtly stokes the power of the central dramatic conflict with his unexpectedly sympathetic performance as Marke — a visionary who’s woefully blind as a man in love. Sewell skillfully underplays the climactic scenes as Marke progresses from betrayal to outrage to resignation.
O’Hara is a standout in the strong supporting cast.
Given the notorious vagaries of weather on the Irish coast, where much of the pic was shot, lenser Arthur Reinhart and editor Peter Boyle deserve kudos simply for seamlessly matching shots. Pic’s tragic tone is effectively enhanced by the near-constant overcast look of daytime exteriors in Ireland and Czech Republic.
Many characters are too well-coiffed — and too well-scrubbed — to be credible in the Dark Ages setting. Overall, however, production values — including Anne Dudley’s Celtic-flavored score — are first-rate.