Movie Review: Tristan and Isolde

>In the first few minutes of Tristan and Isolde, I thought that it was going to be a poorly-done knock-off of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. The movie unfolds as a medieval period film about warring kingdoms with a big battle at the beginning. I soon realized, that this wasn’t intended to be a battle movie like Braveheart; rather, it was a tragic love story which takes place in an adeptly portrayed pre-Christian England.

This movie is a retelling of an ancient legend that has many variations and has inspired other well-known stories such as Romeo and Juliet or the love triangle of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.

At the time the movie takes place, England and Ireland are enemies. Only Ireland is united under one king whereas England is broken up into tribes. If those tribes were to unite, then they will be much too strong for Ireland to dominate, so Ireland’s king does his best to sabotage England’s unification efforts. Lord Marke, played by Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, Arabian Nights), is the tribe leader most likely to unite England as king. He brings the orphaned boy Tristan, played by James Franco (Spider-man 1, 2 & 3) into his household where he raises him as a son.

The adult Tristan goes to battle and is believed to be dead after he is cut by a poisoned blade. He is sent away in a funeral boat but his boat ends up beached on the coast of Ireland, where he’s found by the King’s daughter, Isolde, played by Sophia Miles (Thunderbirds, Underworld). Isolde nurses him back to health in secret, and they inevitably fall in love.

Eventually, Tristan returns to England and is sent to a tournament to win the prize in the name of Lord Marke. Little does he know that the prize is the hand of Isolde in marriage.

One of the things this movie did very well was the getting-to-know-you sequences between Tristan and Isolde. There was a natural relationship that formed as she nursed him back to health. When the time came for Isolde to marry the king that Tristan was loyal to, the angst that the two of them feel, pitted against their need to be separated because of duty was very powerful. This movie effectively shows us these struggles instead of just telling us that they exist. It’s funny, but during this portion of the movie, I kept thinking about how good Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones could have been, if the Anakin and Padme sequences had been structured the same way that Tristan and Isolde’s sequences were.

One of the things that I really liked about this story is that Lord Marke is really a good guy! Isolde even begins to appreciate him after a short time. This makes what Tristan does even more despicable. It was nice to see the main characters actually struggling with the decisions as they attempted to balance duty and honor against their love for each other.

In the end, I was sad about the the fates that Tristan and Isolde were consigned to and for the mistakes that they made. I would classify this as a great morality tale. Often we believe that our feelings should rule over us always, and that if something “feels right” it must be good. But we need to always remember, that honor and duty aren’t just social conventions— they’re reminders that our choices and actions actually impact the lives of others, and ultimately, we’re responsible for much more than just our own peace and safety.

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