Things have changed since the Dark Ages. Tons. Back then there was chivalry and honour, and the measure of a man wasn't his bank balance or the notches on his bedpost, but the glory he had earned in battle. However, there are elements of the human condition that are timeless; passions that are the bedrock of storytelling whatever the era.
As with Romeo and Juliet or Helen and Paris, Tristan + Isolde tells of a forbidden love between two people on either side of warring tribes.
The film takes place in a post-Roman Britain where Lord Marke of Cornwall (Rufus Sewell hopes to unite the scattered English clans in order to overcome the tyrannical rule of Ireland's King Donnchadh. Following an ambush on Irish forces, Tristan (James Franco) is mistaken for a corpse and given a Viking burial.
He washes ashore in Ireland where King Donnchadh's daughter Isolde (Sophia Myles) rescues the stricken warrior and nurses him back to health. Naturally, they fall in love and have a passionate affair kept secret from her father. But Tristan returns to England when his boat is discovered, forcing the two star-crossed lovers to separate.
When Donnchadh calls a tournament for the English chieftains, Marke sends Tristan to fight in his stead. In a cruel twist of fate, Isolde is the prize he is contesting, and he is sickened to discover that he has won the hand of his beloved on behalf of his kin and mentor. What follows is a tale of sacrifice and betrayal to rival any tragedy.
Franco smoulders opposite Myles, and in their moments of indecision the impossible internal struggle is painfully clear. There are beautifully shot landscapes as well as brutally shot battles juxtaposed with moments of passion, tension and treachery.
But this is a half-finished job, without adequate character development to make the final chapters of the story truly believable. Too much time is spent exploiting the natural chemistry between Franco and Myles in tasteful sex scenes. Similarly, we are treated to a few too many close-ups of a jealous Tristan watching the painful consequences of his decisions unfold. The upshot is that we are left wondering whether this might all just be for the sake of pure lust.
That said, any fan of classic storytelling will find something here to love. More cynical cinema-goers may find it harder going.
A great cast and a classic tale results in a mouth-watering prospect.
Both thrilling and moving, but only in parts.
An imaginative tale of impossible love.