There be dragons!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tristan & Isolde

The lovely AbecedariusRegina and I watched the new version of "Tristan & Isolde" a few nights ago.
This new version is directed by Kevin Reynolds stars James Franco and Sophia Myles. Most of the critics hated the movie, but I'm afraid that in years of reading the Arthurian stories (Mabinogion, Gawain, Yvain, Cretien de Troyes and Malory and Pyle, et alia) and in years of looking for even one good adaptation of the Arthurian cycle, my standards have grown pretty low. First there was "Camelot" in which the Rogers & Hammerstein music made the whole thing rather silly. Then there was "Excalibur" where the blood, sex, and general Heavy Metaldom ruined the movie. Then there was "First Knight" in which the aging Sean Connery could not save the film from the acting of Richard Gere and the plot and direction of Jerry Zucker which produced a state of unbridled hilarity followed by dull disoriented nausea.

In brief there has never been a really good version of Arthur. There has never been a good version of Arthur. Hell, there's never been an even passible version of Arthur. All are bloody, oversexed, silly, ignoble, or downright laughable; Hollywood actors with perfect teeth flouncing about in poorly constructed armor delivering horrendous bits of ill-constructed English in bad British accents.

Thus it was that I came to the movie expecting little and found Tristan & Isolde somewhat above the crop. Yes the teeth are too perfect and the accents too bad and the costuming the usual dun colored pseudoprimitive garbage we saw in Antoine Fuqua's Fuquaed-up piece of shlock (whose sole redemption was watching Keira Knightly in tight fitting leather!). Nevertheless, though James Franco did little more than brood and bash heads, and though Sophia Myles was a bit on the breathless and whiny side, the movie nevertheless did some justice to this ancient story.

Let's not compare the movie to Tristan und Isolde by Wagner or to Howard Pyle's brilliant retelling of the story or even to the original tale of Beroul b/c the movie certainly does cut so big a wake as those excellent giants. Nevertheless, the plot does move, there are exciting moments and there is some good dialogue.

There were good lines such as

King Mark's address to the other chieftains, "Will you always be little men incapable of seeing what once was and may be again?"

or Tristan's last words to Isolde, "I don't know if life is greater than death. But love was more than either."

or Isolde's attempt to dissuade Tristan saying, "We both know this cannot be, Tristan. We knew it from the start. That doesn't mean it wasn't true, it is."

or her realization of the pain of adulterous love, "Yesterday at the market, I saw a couple holding hands... and I realized we'll never do that. Never anything like it. No picnics or unguarded smiles. No rings. Just... stolen moments that leave too quickly."

or Tristan's response to Isolde's praise of love, "There are other things to live for; duty, honor."

or Mark's pitiful confidence with Tristan, "Is it possible a man blinded by love might not see treachery right in front of him?"

The acting wasn't so atrocious that it burned the eyeballs to watch it. In fact, I thought that Rufus Sewell did a particularly good job in making Mark a likeable, rather pathetic, but ultimately noble man. Sophia Myles made good eye candy and did a passable job as a sweet, somewhat love stricken princess. Even James Franco was at least the brooding, if somewhat unbelievable, image of Tristan.

The story differs from the traditional Tristan & Isolde, adding political intrigue with a bloodthirsty (though not monstrous) king of Ireland, attacks on castles, raids on slavers, and Tristan's visit to Ireland prior to when he visits in the stories. Traditionally, Tristan visits Ireland as emissary for King Mark to win the hand of Isolde. During his stay on the emerald isle he becomes friends with her, and eventually falls in love with her. Some versions, including Wagner, attribute the love to a potion given Isolde by her witch mother for the sake of enticing Mark but which the two inadvertently drink, thus making their passion utterly beyond their control. They refrain from physical consummation of their desire, yet eventually, after the jealousy of Mark and the potential ruin of the court, they do have an interlude. It is a gripping and moving tale exploring the conflicts in man of jealousy, desire & reason, duty vs. love, honor vs. ruin.

The movie has Tristan loving Isolde physically before he ever returns to Cornwall (since Hollywood can't depict true love without making the beast with two backs). In this movie version, the irony is that Tristan wins Isolde in a contest of arms hosted by the duplicitous King of Ireland who seeks to drive a wedge between the chiefs of the English Isles (discount all history here, btw). It's an interesting twist on the tale and actually does work to produce an element of tragic tension. Tristan does refrain for some time (in movie time, of course) from engaging in adultery with Isolde and the movie does lean toward the fact that it is adultery. One does not desire harm to come to Mark and actually sympathizes with the poor one-handed cuckold. Further, the movie explores some of the damage which adultery, even adultery based on honest feelings of love, exacts on other people. Everyone around the adulterous couple notes their flirtation, except the benighted husband. Some try to warn them (Isolde's maid, Tristan's adopted brother) and some use the information to ruin Cornwall (Mark Strong in a great loathsome baddie role). But eventually all are affected.

There is an element of nobility in Tristan and Isolde, the former realizing the damage done by his careless passion and seeking to clear his name pushes Isolde away in a boat and gives his life to defend the keep. There is a hopeful ending to the movie with Cornwall surviving the onslaught of the Irish and the Irish king going down in a great oh shitter battle. And there is redemption for Mark who allows the two lovers to escape his prison and grants Tristan absolution at the end of his life.

The story would have been stronger had we seen the ruin of Cornwall due to this affair, and the cheesy epithet to the movie was completely useless. Perhaps the weakest point of the movie was the lack of thesis; was it about adulterous love? was it about the good power of love? was it about the treachery of jealousy? was it about honor superceding the temporary feeling of love? was it an attempt to tell "the real, historical story" of Tristan and Isolde (an attempt upon which many directors foolishly embark, nota bene Fuqua's upped effort)? Any single concentration on one of these theses would have benefitted the movie.

Yet overall, it was a good tale and good use of the material and is, so far, the best telling of an Arthurian tale to emerge from the Hollywood fleshpots.


  1. I think that there is a strong Transformers/Arthurian connection. I've yet to work it all out, but it's there... waiting.

  2. Optimus Prime=Arthur
    Allspark=Holy Grail

    I'm starting to get it!