Let’s face it. Movies released in January usually aren’t very good. Yes, some of these movies are Oscar hopefuls that are released nation-wide, but only after being released in selected cities to quality for those Oscars. No, we’re talking about stinking piles of crap like Uwe Boll’s Bloodrayne here. Being that January is Hollywood’s cinematic dumping ground, it comes as no surprise that Tristan & Isolde was released during this very same month in 2006.
Delayed for nearly a year, Tristan & …solde follows a slew of disappointing historical epics, so common sense would tell you that the studio heads looked at this film and dubbed it a risk, with no bankable stars attached. What the studio heads seemed to forget (or miss, because let’s face it — they’re more concerned with target audiences and opening weekends than quality) Tristan & Isolde is not half bad. In fact, it’s rather good.
Set during the Irish and English wars after the Roman Empire had fallen and withdrawn from that area, leaving a disorganized England to fend for itself against an invading Ireland, Tristan & Isolde begins with a battle in which both of Tristan’s parents are killed. When Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) saves Tristan from death during the battle, he adopts Tristan as a son.
Tristan (James Franco) grows older and Lord Marke strives to reunite the still-divided England, with Tristan as his loyal right hand man. Meanwhile, across the Irish Sea, Isolde (Sophia Myles) is arranged to be wed to a man she is more repulsed by than attracted to. When Tristan kills Isolde’s husband-to-be in battle, Tristan is infected by a poison wound, and is thought to be dead. His funeral boat is launched to sea only to wash ashore in Ireland to be discovered by Isolde. They fall in love and for a short period of time, Tristan and Isolde safely enjoy each other’s company as she nurses him back to health. When Tristan’s boat is discovered by the Irish, a hunt for him ensues. Tristan escapes and returns to England.
Following this, scheming Irish King Donnchadh (Mark O’Hara) holds a tournament seeking peace between Ireland and England, but only for personal gain. Tristan vows to win the tournament for Lord Marke, offering up the tourney’s prize to him. Little does Tristan know, the prize is Isolde who turns out to be King Donnchadh’s daughter. When Tristan wins the tournament, he discovers his lost love Isolde is the prize and is forced to give her up to Lord Marke to be wed.
Once Lord Marke and Isolde are married, the adultery begins. Tristan and Isolde meet secretly in the woods, and the more time they spend together, the closer they come to being caught. When an English traitor catches wind of Tristan and Isolde’s affair, he plans to use it to destroy Lord Marke’s attempt at reuniting England.
For most of the film, Tristan & Isolde is a paint by numbers tragic love story epic. All the ingredients for a tragic love story — arranged marriages, mistaken identity, betrayals, epic battles — are in place, but they are rushed along too quickly, and fail to engage the viewer with any emotional impact. However, during the second half of the film, some emotion shines through like the sun on a rainy day.
Looking back, I’d say the major reason why Tristan & Isolde doesn’t reach the highest level of tragic love stories is the casting. James Franco’s Tristan broods a lot — just like he did in Spider-Man — but we never fully understand his Tristan or what drives him. Franco seems to think that as long as he looks dejected and tortured, and has tears welling up in his eyes, we’ll understand his longing. While Franco always looks great doing this, he fails to create a character we connect with. Sophia Myles does a much better job creating a character full of longing and wanting. However, Rufus Sewell turns in the film’s best performance as Lord Marke, who is torn between honor, jealousy, and his love of Tristan as a son. It’s also nice to see Sewell other than a villain for once.
But overall, Tristan and Isolde’s love story is never elevated above the rest of the film. Too much time is spent on the politics of the English and Irish feud and we never spend enough time with the lovers to get involved in their tortured relationship. Whereas Romeo and Juliet’s love story drives the plot, Tristan and Isolde’s love story gets lost in the film’s many battles.
After having watched Tristan & Isolde, I believe this film was mis-marketed. Upon seeing ads for the film, I thought it would be some generic teenie-bopper period piece complete with modern music hits (Gavin DeGraw has a song on the soundtrack) and characters that don’t act like they are in the period in which the movie is set. A Knight’s Tale comes to mind. But Tristan & Isolde feels more like Braveheart than it does anything else. While Braveheart might be a lofty comparison, it is similar in taking itself serious. Upon seeing Kevin Reynolds’ name pop up as director after the film was over, I thought that made sense, since his Count of Monte Cristo was in the same vein: classic material remade without modern influence on the plot, didn’t take itself too serious, but was always loyal to the source material.
For a film released in January, Tristan & Isolde is surprisingly good. There are no laughable bits of dialogue or scenes that induce eye-rolling. All the actors do good jobs, and while some could do better, they never bring down the film. As I thought about the film after it ended, I realized that it did strike a chord in me. Maybe I’m a sucker for tragic love stories like Romeo and Juliet. I know I much prefer them to the lighthearted fare seen so often in cheesy romantic comedies. The conclusion I came to is that Tristan & Isolde is better than the sum of its parts. The impression you get when it’s over will probably be greater than anything you’ll feel while watching it.
Tristan & Isolde is a sight to behold. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, it is one of the best-looking DVD’s I’ve ever seen. There is no grain, no pixilation, nothing hinders the viewing experience whatsoever. Blacks are deep and rich, and the muddy grays of England and Ireland are natural. The image is always razor sharp.
The excellent DVD treatment continues, this time in the sound department. Tristan & Isolde receives a DTS 5.1 track that may not get a lot of chances to showcase itself, but it always handles everything thrown its way with excellent sound separation. Battle scenes engulf the viewer as well as subtle ambience noises.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn’t as aggressive as the DTS track, and for a movie that isn’t aggressive in general, this hurts the DD 5.1 track. For those without DTS capability, the DD 5.1 track will do, but to get every last drop out of this somewhat limited soundtrack, the DTS track is the way to go.
While the disc’s video portion clearly wins the A/V battle, the sound department doesn’t take away from the viewing experience. While it does feel limited in some regards, it only adds to the pristine movie watching experience.
Commentaries – we are treated to 2 commentaries. The first is with writer Dean Georgaris who muses on how he added his own touch to a classic story. The second commentary is with Executive Producer Jim Lemley and Co-Producer Anne Lai. They discuss the making of the film — budget, production costs, and shooting locations. Both commentaries are interesting, with Georgaris’ being the more insightful.
Love Conquers All – The Making of Tristan & Isolde – This is a “making-of” documentary has the cast and crew discussing the film’s subject matter: love, honor, jealousy, as well as shooting on location and making a film on a limited budget. The most interesting note is that Executive Directors Ridley and Tony Scott both wanted to make this film for over 30 years. Ridley Scott even went as far to storyboard the film in a science-fiction setting. That would have been interesting. Who knows, maybe someone will make a Romeo and Juliet movie set in space one day…
Music Video “We Belong Together” – both the long and short versions of Gavin DeGraw’s music video are featured. It’s a very good song, and a throwback to a time when songs were actually based on the movie in which they are featured. It seems like many soundtracks these days are just excuses to round up today’s hottest recording acts and have them come up with songs that have no connection to the film. I have to admit, when watching this music video months ago, around the time Tristan & Isolde was released in theaters, the video alone had me sold on seeing the film at some point.
Trailers and TV Spots – contains the film’s trailer and promotional TV spots.
Tristan & Isolde is a diamond in the rough. Whereas most films released in January are stinkers, Tristan & Isolde uses solid production values, cast and direction to become a decent tragic love story epic. The DVD treatment only enhances the viewing experience with excellent video and audio. With just enough special features included, Trsitan & Isolde finally gets the treatment it deserves. That definitely makes up for dropping the film on the general public as if it is something to be ashamed of.
Special Features List
- Commentary with Dean Georgaris
- Commentary with Jim Lemley and Anne Lai
- Love Conquers All – The Making of Tristan & Isolde
- Music Video “We Belong Together”
- Trailers and TV Spots