Monday, February 16, 2009

Tristan + Isolde (20th Century-Fox, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I didn’t have a chance earlier to write about the movie Charles and I screened Saturday night as a Valentine’s Day special: Tristan + Isolde (that’s how the title is spelled on both the DVD box and the actual credits, apparently in imitation of the Romeo + Juliet nomenclature of the 1996 Baz Luhrmann modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s play, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire Danes as Juliet), a 2006 production by director Kevin Reynolds — the boyhood friend of Kevin Costner whose relationship was strained when they made Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and then totally destroyed by the traumas of Waterworld — though both Ridley Scott and his brother Tony are among the crowd of credited producers and Ridley actually planned to make this in the 1970’s before abandoning it and doing Alien instead (a wise move for the future of his career!).

Part of the attraction of this movie was the casting of James Franco as Tristan, and for me the temptation to show this the night after we’d watched him in a modern-dress stoner role in Pineapple Express was irresistible. What I wouldn’t have guessed was that the modern-dress drug comedy would be a lot more entertaining than this mediocre period piece! Tristan + Isolde isn’t a bad movie; it’s just not a particularly good one, and given that it’s up against two magnificent tellings of the story in other media — Gottfried von Strassburg’s prose poem and Richard Wagner’s opera — the mediocrity of the version Reynolds and his writer, Dean Georgaris, simply isn’t good enough. Reynolds and Georgaris altered the story almost unrecognizably, using little of either Gottfried or Wagner but some of the proper names and the basic situation — Prince Tristan of Cornwall, adoptive son of King Marke, brings back Irish princess Isolde to be Marke’s bride as part of a peace treaty between England and Ireland but falls in love with her himself.

The big element they left out was the love potion that sparks their affair; Gottfried, stuck with the medieval writer’s obligation to remain faithful to his source (an earlier version of the legend by someone named Thomas) — the new writer was allowed to add detail to the older version but not to add or change plot points — was stuck with the idea that Tristan and Isolde had had no romantic interest in each other until they drank the potion, which left him at a loss to explain why Isolde saved Tristan’s life after he had killed her fiancé, Morold, in battle. Wagner, not stuck with the same rules, hinted that Isolde was romantically (or at least sexually) interested in Tristan pre-potion; Georgaris took that hint and ran with it, not only showing Isolde as having the hots for Tristan but them actually consummating their affair as soon as he was healed enough to be able to have sex.

This has one fringe benefit, at least for straight female and Gay male viewers — it offers more and better views of James Franco “in the flesh” than any other film of his I’ve seen — but not only does it soften the blow when they finally do become adulterers, it wrecks the balance of the plot so carefully crafted by Gottfried and followed by Wagner, especially since in this version Isolde is aware from the beginning who Tristan is (in both Gottfried and Wagner he inverts his first name and calls himself “Tantris” when he’s under Isolde’s care, aware that if she knew who he really was she’d kill him) and therefore there isn’t the visceral thrill or suspense of what’s going to happen to him when she “outs” him. Georgaris not only leaves out the love potion — the armamentarium of herbs Isolde’s mother teaches her to use is strictly medicinal, not supernatural — he omits all the fantasy elements of the story, much to its detriment. Without the potion, and the obsessiveness it adds to the story (especially in Wagner’s death-soaked version, in which Tristan and Isolde are undecided moment-by-moment whether what they most want is sex or death), Tristan + Isolde turns into a very ordinary romantic triangle in which the attempts of Tristan and Isolde to find places they can have sex safely takes on an unintended (at least I hope it was unintended) air of farce.

To make it even worse, Georgaris decides to wrap his story around a political theme, beginning with a sequence of printed titles expressing that the various British tribes are living under the oppressive rule of the Irish empire, with Ireland’s warrior-king Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara) keeping control of the next-door island by pitting its tribes against each other and extracting tribute (money and livestock) from them all. I’m not exactly a hard-core Irish nationalist, but given the 1,000 years during which it was Britain that occupied and oppressed Ireland, I got the same sort of clammy feeling from this plot point I’d probably have if I ever watched one of those Nazi propaganda movies detailing the horrible oppression and discrimination Germans supposedly suffered under Polish, Czech or Jewish occupation.

James Franco is part of the problem with this movie; he’s hot-looking and a quite capable actor (I still say I’d have liked the Spider-Man movies better if it had been Franco as Spider-Man and Tobey Maguire as his friend-turned-adversary instead of the other way around!) but, like the late Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale (one of the movies, along with Braveheart, evoked in the promotional copy on the DVD box for this), Franco is simply too modern an actor to seem credible in a medieval role (which is true of most of the cast at well; at times watching Tristan + Isolde seems like watching video of a Renaissance Faire) — just as he’s good-looking and charismatic enough to be credible as Tristan the lover but simply isn’t butch enough to be credible as Tristan the warrior. At least he’s better than his Isolde, Sophia Myles, who can barely act at all.

Another aspect of this movie that really rubbed me the wrong way is Anne Dudley’s musical score; it’s true that she has the unfair burden of the inevitable comparisons with Wagner, but the mess of Irish folk-dance music to represent the principals at peace, pounding percussion to represent them at war, and treacly piano-and-strings stuff that would seem right at home in a Lifetime TV-movie to represent the titular lovers probably would sound terrible even if we didn’t have Wagner’s masterpiece to compare it to. (It’s a pity this movie didn’t get a composer who could have done for it what Gottfried Hüppert did for Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen: create a score that sounded appropriately “Wagnerian” without actually lifting any of Wagner’s themes or motifs.)

It also doesn’t help that Artur Reinhart’s cinematography is thoroughly in the past-is-brown mold, and makes the scene look so dirty and squalid Charles and I found ourselves thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and even quoting some of its lines — or that Reynolds' direction is pretty dull in the action scenes, lacking the peculiar intensity of the violence-porn of Mel Gibson's staging of Braveheart. I came away from Tristan + Isolde oddly wishing that Warners would have done a version in the 1930’s, with Errol Flynn as Tristan (he would have had no trouble being credible as both lover and warrior!), Olivia de Havilland as Isolde, Claude Rains as Marke, Michael Curtiz directing and Erich Wolfgang Korngold composing.