Tristan + Isolde

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The medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde (or Yseult, depending on how archaic you want to be) is these days best known thanks to the grand opera by Richard Wagner, often claimed to be one of the finest ever written. After its initial appearance during the Dark Ages, by the 13th Century Tristan had been elevated to the level of one of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, before the tale of their tragic romance eventually evolved into that of Lancelot and Arthur’s queen, Guinevere.

This version, however, bears only a superficial resemblance to either Wagner or the older versions of the tale. Instead, thanks to the central similarities in plot, this is being pitched as a prototype Romeo and Juliet – initially even utilising the same gimmicky plus sign in the title that Baz Luhrman used in his 1997 version of Shakespeare’s tale. As a marketing tool this is fair enough, but pedants would argue that the genuine original version of this archetypal tale of doomed lovers would be the Greek myths of Hero and Lyander or Pyramus and Thisbe.

Originally developed by Ridley Scott in the 1970s, 30 years on it has fallen to the director of that other re-telling of an old British myth, the Kevin Costner-starring Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, to bring the story to the screen. Though hardly in the same directorial league as Scott, Kevin Reynolds is generally a safe pair of hands for this kind of genre picture, with 2002’s Guy Pearce-starring version of The Count of Monte Cristo testament to his ability to recreate legends for the screen. As such, they thankfully haven’t opted for a modernised re-telling, but have stuck to one of those typically vague, frequently anachronistic visions of the Dark Ages that crop up from time to time in the likes of The 13th Warrior or 2004’s King Arthur.

In other words, this could all sound highly unoriginal, even for a film version of a story that is upwards of 1,400 years old. But, in the wake of the massive success of The Lord of the Rings movies, films with a loosely fantasy, medieval setting have started to hold appeal for Hollywood once more – which makes the decision to do away with the dragons and giants of the original tale rather hard to understand.

The lack of big name stars, however, should be the first indication that this is not mainstream Hollywood, and that the budget probably did not stretch to fancy computer-generated monsters. The two leads, James Franco and Sophia Myles, are best known as Spider-Man’s best friend and Lady Penelope from the disappointing live-action Thunderbirds respectively, with only Rufus Sewell as a recognisable name on the cast list.

If anything, this has the feel of a made-for-TV movie with a slightly larger than average budget, most of which is visible onscreen largely in the shape of beautiful cinematography and wonderfully-detailed costumes. This is not to say that it fails to entertain as a story, nor that it would not make a passable night out, but the two leads rarely show the chemistry that such a story demands and, thanks to the “Romeo and Juliet” tagline, there are few surprises even for those unfamiliar with the original legend. With a greater budget and more experienced leads, however, this could have been something interesting. As it is, Tristan + Isolde remains simply one of those films to watch on DVD in a few months, not at your nearest multiplex on its opening weekend.