Reviewed by

Bud Carlson

We have recently suffered through a spate of disappointing movies set in ancient or medieval Britain (most notably the recent “King Arthur”).  So I thought it was pretty risky for a filmmaker to “try again,” particularly with story based on a much lesser known legend. The film “Tristan and Isolde” attempted to be an epic romance, but instead fell flat, disappointing on many different levels.  

The legend of Tristan and Isolde was one of the most influential romantic tales of the medieval period, predating and influencing the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere.  This legend has roots going back as far as the twelfth century, and like any good ancient tale, there are many versions of the story. In this movie’s retelling, Tristan is the son of an English tribal king, but his parents are pillaged by the marauding Irish when he was just a boy. He is rescued and raised as a nephew by Lord Marke (the king of a neighboring English tribe from Cornwall), and he grows to become the tribe’s most-skilled warrior (and all-around village good-guy). Lord Marke’s primary political ambition is to unite the tribes of England into a unified force after the fall of Rome, so that the British can better stand-up to the Irish forces. 

The storyline of the movie really picks up during an otherwise-routine skirmish between the forces of Cornwall and those of King Donnchadh of Ireland. During the fighting, Tristan goes one-on-one with Ireland’s best fighter and defeats him, but suffers a wound from a poisoned sword. The poison renders him near-dead, and his fellow fighters assume he’s deceased, and they launch his body to sea aboard a small boat which eventually lands on the shores of Ireland. Isolde, the only daughter of King

Donnchadh, finds the ailing Tristan among the small boat’s wreckage on the beach, and secretly nurses him to health while pretending to be a handmaiden. Of course the two fall passionately in love, but are then separated when Tristan is forced to flee to his homeland, and the two must accept that they will never see each other again. Meanwhile, in an effort to keep the tribes of England from becoming a unified force, King Donnchadh offers up his daughter Isolde’s hand in marriage to the winner of an open tournament of hand-to-hand fighting. Tristan unwittingly enters and fights in Lord Marke’s name (under the pretext that his winning this tournament will somehow help to keep the Brition’s unification plans on tract), and wins Isolde as a wife for his uncle. The cruel triangle that results forces all three to decide where their true loves and loyalties lie, a struggle that could destroy the fragile Briton kingdom. 

Hollywood’s ability to take a perfectly good story and turn it into a disappointing movie has never ceased to amaze me. In the case of Tristan & Isolde, I’m afraid this is exactly what has happened, as the story itself is far more interesting than the movie allows itself to be. The romantic tale of this couple has been shared among people for over nine centuries, yet the movie may not make it much past the opening weekend.


Armstead’s Second:  Since this fable is purported to be the precursor to Romeo and Juliet, then fifteen minutes in you’ll be praying for Isolde to hurry up and do the Juliet thing and put us out of our misery.  But alas, it’s not meant to be and we are subjected to another good 100 minutes of her incessant whining and Tristan’s singular mood of pouting and feeling sorry for himself.  The one thing that could have saved this overly drab, overly long, melodramatic mess is if Tristan, upon awakening from his poison induced slumber, thrust his sword into Isolde’s heart.  Then upon seeing what he had done, fell upon the sword himself in despair.  And have that happen in the first 10 minutes.  Then roll credits.  THAT I’d go see over and over again.

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