Myth-charged, elemental images bring Tristan & Isolde within hailing distance of real magic. Bereft knights send their moribund champion, Tristan (James Franco), across the sea amid bouquets of flaming arrows. A tremulous bride, Isolde (Sophia Myles), stands grimly upright in a boat as she glides on a river to a politically motivated marriage.
Unfortunately, in the end, all you get are magic's distant echoes.
Parts of this ultimate doomed-love story have an enjoyable sweep and thrust. In keeping with the fable's Celtic roots in the Dark Ages, director Kevin Reynolds and screenwriter Dean Georgaris set up Tristan as the ward and trusted general of Marke of Cornwall (Rufus Sewell). A brave, sagacious ruler, Marke lost a hand protecting the boy from Irish marauders and now hopes to unify Britannia's tribes against the Emerald Isle's King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara). Isolde, the Irish king's daughter, rues her life in a military culture. She wants to know there's something more to existence than honor and obligation. She uses her knowledge of herbal remedies to save Tristan after he washes up unconscious - but, amazingly, still alive - on her shore.
It's love at first sight - although Tristan sees Isolde only after days of slumber. And in this rendering of the story, they consummate their feelings before Tristan escapes back to Cornwall. He doesn't know her true identity. When he returns to win the hand of the Irish king's daughter for Marke, in a tournament, and thus secure peace for his land, he's shocked to discover she's Isolde.
Reynolds has a bold, boyish way of pulling off storybook coups, like Isolde and her maid warming Tristan with their naked bodies. He stages and edits his fighting scenes with economy and impact. Every thwack of a sword or swing of a mace counts.
But Georgaris' dialogue descends into cliche. At one point, Isolde's maid actually tells her that she's playing "a dangerous game."
And Reynolds' casting proves fatally haphazard. Franco has been adept at turning the psychological torment of modern guys like James Dean (on a cable-TV movie) and Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man series inside out. But he brings everything too close to the surface as Tristan. He's less an image of hopeless yearning than the medieval edition of narcissistic misunderstood youth. One look at this Tristan and you think, "Oh, this is all about him."
It doesn't help that to keep the PG-13 rating and still retain some heat Reynolds eroticizes Franco more than Myles. Tristan's wound lies right beneath his chest, so when Isolde nurses him back to health in a seaside hut, the camera returns again and again to linger on his pecs. The view may help the movie with its "chick flick" audience. But will those fans even show up when word gets out that swordplay overwhelms amour?
There's more going on between Isolde and Sewell's Marke than there is between her and Tristan. Sewell banks the explosive energy he usually vents as a villain. He puts authentic weight and poignancy behind the dilemma of a stalwart older man besotted with a beauty who respects yet cannot adore him.
As a cool blonde amid battalions of swarthy, hirsute noblemen or bald and burly master warriors, our eyes drink Myles in for refreshment. She's a canny actress: She signals the simmer that lies beneath Isolde's constraints. But she can't succeed in compelling us to see Tristan as Isolde sees him.
Reynolds, playing to his own strengths, overemphasizes Marke's quest to unify Britain. He turns the story into a blood-and-guts version of Camelot. Reynolds externalizes everything - whether in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Waterworld, that's his graphic and dramatic method. In 2002's swashbuckling version of The Count of Monte Cristo, he produced a splendid Classics Illustrated comic book.
But with Tristan & Isolde, the core must be a passion that enlarges two outsize characters and seems as momentous as the rise and fall of a kingdom. Too bad this film's Achilles' heel is its heart.
Tristan & Isolde (20th Century Fox) Starring James Franco, Sophia Myles and Rufus Sewell. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Rated PG-13. Time 124 minutes. Review C+