One of the first things I learned when I began my classic book challenge was “Read the book first!”. Okay, sure. No problem.
Fast forward to signing up for Classics Retold, an amazing event this month where you read a classic book and consume as many adaptations as you can handle, then blog like crazy about it. I specifically signed up to read Tristan and Isolt because I had some inkling it was connected to Arthurian legend, a childhood fascination of mine. I have also been craving a delicious romance story to sink my teeth into. But not too long after signing up, I got my hands on Tristan and Isolde, the 2006 movie starring James Franco, Rufus Sewell and Sophia Myles. I put it in the DVD player that same night and sat back to enjoy the beautiful Irish scenery, the enchanting classical music, and then it dawned on me…
“I haven’t read the book yet!”
Doh! In my excitement about the movie (okay, maybe James Franco had something to do with it), I completely forgot the golden rule. I decided to forge ahead anyway and this is my long-winded explanation for reviewing the movie before the book.
From all of the comments I read online, Tristan and Isolde appeared to be a well-liked, popular movie. However, it received terrible reviews in the media and bombed at the box office grossing only a meager $14.73 million dollars after two and a half months. Years later, James Franco wrote an article about his regrets doing the movie and how he and director, Kevin Reynolds, butted heads during the entire production. If the star of the show doesn’t have his heart in the project, how can that not translate through to the movie? Guess what? It totally does.
Despite James Franco’s gloominess, I really liked Tristan and Isolde. Since it was both a period drama and an action flick, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. You can’t go wrong with a medieval legend, dark ages politics, beautiful people and some ass-whooping. Plus, the lovely Henry Cavill is in the movie!
The movie begins with Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) and his grim task of uniting the tribes of Britain while also fending off Irish attacks led by King Donnchadh. The lion-hearted lord adopts Tristan when he becomes an orphan and loves him like a son. Tristan (James Franco) grows up to be respected in Marke’s inner circle for his strength and courage as a warrior, yet also envied and mistrusted as an outsider. In a battle with the Irish, Tristan is mortally wounded and when mistakenly thought to be dead, his body is sent out to sea. When Tristan’s funeral boat washes up on a beach in Ireland, it is discovered by King Donnchadh’s daughter, Isolde (Sophia Myles). In this adaptation, Isolde is not only an Irish princess, but an experienced healer and she saves Tristan’s life. While she is hiding him from her father, Isolde and Tristan fall madly in love. But Tristan becomes dangerously close to being discovered and Isolde sends him back across the sea. In a strange twist of fate, the lovers are reunited but not to be together. In a tournament hosted by the Irish, Tristan wins Isolde’s hand in marriage for Marke, not realizing she is the prize. Isolde dutifully marries Marke, who is now king, but she and Tristan cannot stop loving each other and begin an affair. Their betrayal becomes public and not only humiliates Marke, but gives his enemies a reason to try to dethrone him. When the Irish storm Marke’s castle, Tristan abandons Isolde and rushes back to fight alongside his father-king (strange since he spent the whole movie choosing love over duty, anyhoo …). Tristan literally fights to the death for Marke and the young lovers are tragically torn apart forever.
The Tristan and Isolde cast instantly attracted me to the movie and I would have happily watched it even without Classics Retold as an incentive. James Franco plays Tristan as a very serious and depressed hero. I love him, so I was able to overlook the fact that he seemed out of place in the action scenes, and was probably a little lackluster as a hero and romantic interest. I thought Sophia Myles was much more interesting as Isolde, the princess with a mind of her own and at the mercy of her circumstances. You really felt for this girl struggling between true love and duty to a man she cared about. Rufus Sewell, another actor whom I greatly admire, adeptly plays Marke the king with the kind heart. You can’t help liking his character for still loving Tristan and Isolde even after their betrayal. When he blows up, you just smile and know he doesn’t really mean it.
What I liked the most about Tristan and Isolde is that the movie diverges from the legend and there is no magic potion that brings the characters together. They fall in love by spending time together, walking along the beach, talking and getting to know each other. Just like normal people! I find this far more romantic than being under the spell of some potion. Franco and Myles make a pretty couple, but I didn’t see much chemistry between them. However, there are lots of gorgeous scenes of Tristan and Isolde quoting poetry or meeting at a secret rendezvous.
Overall, I liked Tristan and Isolde because it’s pleasant to the eyes and a captivating love story, the kind that soothes your soul for some strange reason and makes you sigh. The movie simplifies the legend by focusing on the love triangle between Tristan, Isolde and Marke. I initially thought James Franco would make a great Tristan, but it’s clear from his performance he just wanted to get the whole thing over with (much like when he co-hosted the Oscars). However, I think Sophia Myles and Rufus Sewell make up for James’ lack of enthusiasm and save the movie from being too mediocre. I didn’t get the grand-scale romance I wanted out of Tristan and Isolde, but you do get an entertaining introduction to an epic legend that has stood the test of time.