Tristan and Isolde doesn’t deserve James Franco’s fine performance. The actor brings such gravity to the role of Tristan, the mythic Cornish hero who appears in some legends as a member of the Knights of the Round Table, you’d think he were trying to show up Heath Leger in Brokeback Mountain. Similarly, director Kevin Reynolds’s equally glum approach behind the camera suggests a response to Ridley Scott’s outlandishly aggressive Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t know what’s worse: the bodice-ripping confection I expected to see or the gloomy, awkwardly clipped drama it really is.
When the ostensibly dead Tristan is set adrift on a funeral pyre in his native, battle-worn England, he winds up in Ireland, where the frustrated king’s daughter, Isolde (Sophia Myles), cures his poisoned heart. Reynolds doesn’t have the lyrical or magical realist aptitude to sell this grand coincidence as an act of transcendental fate; the real effect is that of Ireland, in the words of Disney’s Pocahontas, being just around the river bend. This visual laziness also manifests itself dramatically, especially in the romance between Tristan and Isolde, which doesn’t flourish so much as it abruptly blooms and ends before later resuming again in England, when Isolde has been married off to Tristan’s king and savior, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell).
There’s very little breathing room around Tristan and Isolde‘s scenes. The editing is never winded, but it’s as if the filmmakers have trimmed the fat throughout in order to make the film come under a designated running time. (I fear the edited version of The New World may give off the same effect: a film so anxiously paced it impedes our serious consideration of and affection for its images.) This is a pity because there’s an unassuming beauty to some of the film’s grimy images (like the mass of torch lights that dance in the night like fireflies) and real tenderness that passes between its actors. Even when the film asks us to believe that an entire army of men would turn against their evil king after listening to an inspirational speech from an enemy soldier holding a traitor’s severed head, the film gives off the feeling of being incredibly bored with itself. The feeling is contagious.