Political intrigue trumps forbidden passion every time in Kevin Reynolds’ curiously uninvolving Fifth Century love story, “Tristan + Isolde.”
Based on the Celtic legend that inspired Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera, the movie is most effective when it focuses on Rufus Sewell’s intense performance as Lord Marke, a man who would be king of post-Roman Britain. Sewell plays Marke as a forerunner of King Arthur, trying to pull the tribes together while being undermined by treacherous allies and an adulterous wife.
When Irish troops massacre Marke’s family and orphans the child Tristan (Thomas Sangster), the two bond for life. As Tristan grows up, proving himself as a master swordsman and a natural leader, he gradually takes over the role of second in command.
Unfortunately, when the adult Tristan (James Franco) is left for dead and nursed back to health by the Irish beauty, Isolde (Sophia Myles), Reynolds and his screenwriter, Dean Georgaris, run into an insurmountable problem: title characters who lack romantic chemistry.
Tristan and Isolde are supposed to fall in love, then take turns sacrificing that love for the good of their countries. Thanks to a series of nightmarish plot twists, they literally can’t stay away from each other. Their secret passion, which has a ruinous, moth-to-the-flame quality, is supposed to drive the story, yet for the most part it’s invisible.
Franco, who brought self-deprecating wit to the television series “Freaks and Geeks” and deservedly won a Golden Globe for playing the title role in the TV biography, “James Dean,” is seriously miscast. He’s mopey and inexpressive as Tristan: an American actor who seems out of place in a cast dominated by Brits. The vulnerability he brought to his impersonation of Dean is missing.
Myles, best-known for the horror films “Underworld” and “From Hell,” is somewhat more animated as Isolde, but she often seems to be play-acting in a children’s film. It’s hard to take her seriously when she doesn’t appear to take the story seriously. But then that’s a problem she shares with the screenwriter.
Georgaris, who co-wrote the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” never satisfactorily establishes why Tristan and Isolde’s grand passion should be accepted as such. He hints that their bond is so secure that it will outlast the grave, but he doesn’t provide a single scene that demonstrates why the lovers should be regarded as anything more than pretty and infatuated youngsters.
What’s needed is a larger-than-life operatic quality, and Anne Dudley’s timid score can’t fill in for Wagner. Neither can Reynolds’ direction. He’s given the movie a grimy, gritty look, similar to “King Arthur” and his own “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves,” but the surface attempt at Dark Ages authenticity can only take him so far.
We need to believe in someone here, and since Tristan and Isolde are emotionally unavailable, Sewell’s relentlessly idealistic Lord Marke fills the vacuum. Confused by betrayal, growing in dignity as he attempts to hold his precarious kingdom together, he becomes a legitimate tragic figure by film’s end.