Saga of the Dark Ages

Divided loyalty, Forbidden Love

TRISTAN & ISOLDE: Directed by Kevin Rynolds. Written by Dean Georgaris. Produced by Moshe Diamant, Elie Samaha, Lisa Ellzey, Giannina Facio. Executive producers Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Jim Lemley, Frank Hubner, John Hardy, Matthew Stillmann. Cinematography, Arthur Reinhart. Editor, Peter Boyle. Production design, Mark Geraghty. Costumes, Maurizo Millenotti. Art director, Johnny Byrne. Music, Anne Dudley. Stunt coordinator, Nick Powell. Starring James Franco, Sophia Myles and Rufus Sewell. With David Patrick O’Hara, Henry Cavill, JB Blanc, Thomas Sangster. Twentieth Century Fox, 2005. PG-13. 125 minutes.

The Dark Ages (500-1000 A.D.) represented the long decline of Europe following the end of the Roman Empire. When the Roman troops were called home from Britannia in the 5th century, Londinium was a thriving port city, with a large population including great artisans, builders, merchants, shopkeepers, servants and soldiers. Roman homes had central heating, and Roman aqueducts and roads exist today.

The Romans took civil order, government and the treasury with them. The city fell into ruins and was uninhabited until the 9th century. Tristan & Isolde is a mythic romance drawn from this dark time on the two shores of the Irish Sea. On one side was land that would be England but was then the home of battling tribes. On the other shore, the Romans had not conquered the Celtic Ireland’s civilization, and Irish kings periodically attacked Britannia to prevent unification.

A bucolic scene with a father and young son, Tristan (Thomas Sangster) hunting rabbit, opens the film. Carrying his first kill, Tristan stops in the village to buy flowers for his mother, while the boy’s father convenes a meeting to choose a leader from the tribes represented. Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) of Cornwall is the favorite, but before he is elected, the castle is attacked and set afire by the Irish King Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara) as well as Angle, Saxon and Jute invaders.

Lord Marke loses his right hand in the battle but saves Tristan, now an orphan, and takes the boy to his home. The boy become a great warrior (played by James Franco), but Melot (Henry Cavill) feels angry that his uncle prefers his surrogate son, Tristan, to him.

On Ireland’s shore, the headstrong daughter of King Donnchadh, Isolde (Sophie Myles), has learned her father has betrothed her in marriage to his chief warrior, a burly, crude man she does not want. She lives a constrained life in Dunluce Castle and tries to run away. Isolde treks to a remote beach with her maid in tow, where they discover a boat washed up on shore with a passenger, a young man with a grievous wound, lying amid the wreckage.

Now the story takes off, bringing into play the hopes and dreams of the age as well as the trials of the star-crossed lovers. Their story predates that of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere as well as Shakespeare’s much later Romeo and Juliet. A story that prevails through centuries becomes timeless, eternal. Here the lovers’ desire for one another gives them the heightened sense of being outside of time and mutes their sense of danger, which otherwise might give them pause.

In Tristan & Isolde, the setting expresses time, too. It’s beautifully shot on rugged, rain-strewn locations on the west coast of Ireland, which mirror the yearning lovers feel, the watery emotions they have for one another we call the blues. The film not only looks like true-love-gone-wrong feels, but it also sounds that way. The musical score by Anne Dudley evokes a Celtic sadness that is just right.

Myles’s stellar performance as Isolde is smart, intuitive and spiritual. She captures the love of Tristan because she tells him about other ways of being in the world than the warrior’s. And her beauty is powerful. But Franco has a harder time making Tristan empathic. Fierce and dangerous in war, he turns sullen and withdrawn when he can’t have Isolde. Sewell’s generous performance as Marke is memorable for its effort to find justice even in betrayal.

The film’s many battle sequences and a challenging tournament for Isolde’s hand should appeal to action fans. Now playing at Cinemark, Tristan & Isolde is recommended for its professional production qualities, clear story and romantic atmosphere.