“Tristan & Isolde”: A Love that Best Not Speak its Name

Jan 20th, 2006 | By | Category: Columns

I would like to say, for the record, that I knew this would happen. The moment I walked into the Union Square multiplex and saw the banner fluttering stupidly in the breeze, ampersand glistening, I knew that Haratron and Andrew would be handing me a ticket to hell, and James Fraco would get top billing.

Tristan & Isolde is ostensibly a retelling of an Arthurian legend, told passionately by a young British cast. If this were the case, the movie would go as follows:

Tristan, a young knight, is sent to fetch Isolde, the Irish princess, in order to be married to his uncle Lord Mark of Cornwall. Isolde’s mother, upon her departure, gives her a wine laced with a love potion to ensure that her husband is always faithful and that Isolde’s own heart is always true. However, the unwitting Isolde offers the wine as a toast to a safe journey, and she and her escort drink.

They fall passionately in love, thanks to the potion, but his code is that of the Courtly Love which dare not transgress, and her duty is to Cornwall. When Tristan can no longer resist the effects of the potion and begs her to come to him, Isolde sends her maid Bragnae in her stead, and the loyal maid takes one for the team, so to speak. Isolde marries Cornwall. After a time Tristan marries a lady of his uncle’s court, who suspects their adultery and, through cunning, makes it appear as though Isolde has abandoned Tristan, at which point he falls dead of a broken heart. Isolde, appearing for their rendezvous, falls upon the body of her lover and follows him almost immediately into an afterlife that promises to be very melodramatic all around.

However, if any of this had happened, the movie would have been really good, or at least bearable. Damn you, ‘ostensibly.’ Damn you to hell.

What we actually get is frat-actor extraordinaire James Franco (Woo! Franco!), cast inexplicably as a young British lord, Sophia Myles as Isolde, whose frustration at having to act with Franco visibly increases as time goes on, and Rufus Sewell, playing the part of my boyfriend.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

We open on a black screen with three pages of absolutely incorrect story background that sit on the screen for several long minutes, all told. I feel this is a mistake; anyone who is actually willing to sit through three screens of text reads faster than that. Just a tip.

Ooh, look! Pictures to go with the pretty words!

Behold Young Tristan, who is the spookily adorable little manlet from Love Actually, and I’m instantly angry, because they have clearly taken care to cast a good actor in the part of the little mite, and the foreknowledge of the impending breach of trust when James Franco shows up is already more poisonous.

Young Tristan catches a rabbit (adorable) and walks with his father back to Village Set A, of which we shall se much in this movie. Tykestan then makes his mother a bracelet from a bunch of lavender (a little gay, perhaps, but no less adorable) and sits in on his father’s Olde Tyme Unitede Nationnes (so, so adorable), behind held in Castle Set A, of which we will also see plenty.

I’m not sure why the sets are so stock – God knows they didn’t spend the money on a talented lead or anything – but trust me, you’ll be seeing all this again.

Tristan’s dad pulls down a map so technologically complex that it’s equivalent to the Star Wars projections of the Death Star, and uses its sexy tear-away action to show that, if England unites, the barons can stop getting their asses handed to them by the Irish. He suggests the powerful, wise, and kind Lord Mark (no work-safe adjective for him – hi Rufus!) as High King, and everyone seems to accept this save some guy named Wessex who has no personality except to not accept things that are clearly good ideas. He is also clean-shaven, which is a shame, because this actor clearly needs a moustache to twist while he’s working on these googly-eyed flashes of evil genius. Feel free to twist at home. It makes the movie interactive!

Lord Mark is overwhelmingly elected the High King just moments before the Irish, having been mystically tipped off (twist your moustache here, should you have one), bust in and light the whole place on fire and kill everyone but Tristan, who stupidly (yet adorably) staggers out of his hiding place just in time to need saving by Lord Mark, who gets his hand cut off protecting Tristan from a blade.

I already hate James Franco for making Rufus Sewell have to pretend he’s horrified by a post-production CGI stump.

Apparently, Tykestan and Mark are the only people in all the land to survive the attack of nearly two dozen angry Irishmen, and so Mark takes Tykestan with him, and we get a very Carmen Sandiego moving map of their progress to Cornwall, but I was so freaked out by the graphic attack that I forgot to see where they were coming from, so, whatever, Cornwall.

They enter the sticks and flapping canvases Village Set B, which is apparently a village close enough to his castle to matter, where Mark greets his sister with a stumpy embrace and finds out that those same twenty dudes managed to wipe out all of Cornwall.

No offense to Rufus, but if twenty guys can wipe you out, you probably had serfdom in your future anyway. I’m just saying.

Tykestan is introduced to Some Kid (stop mumbling, Lady Rufus!) and ushered to Castle Set B, currently a smoking ruin.

Good times!

As Mark is left to contemplate the fact that an entire country was just p0wned by a dozen Irishmen, we Carmen Sandiego over to Ireland, where the Irish queen is being given her funeral. A very paltry group of people walk behind the black litter and look bored as the pallbearers put her into the ceremonial dinghy and push her off to a land filled with bearfaces. Or something. They never say.

Luckily, this incredibly lackluster funeral is broken up by a messenger returning to say that one of the unnamed Irish bastards was apparently killed in the fight, which I find embarrassing. Twelve of you take over a country and there’s only one casualty? You know that dude fell down a peat staircase and died and they just don’t want to shame his memory by telling the king.

This is a good call, as the king is also clearly sporting an invisible moustache for later twisting.

A young, blonde, adorable Isolde puts her mother’s ashes on a monument – turns out the funeral toasted her. Too bad; they send a lot of people out in boats in this movie, and I bet the prop guys were pissed they had to burn one up so soon.

Flash forward to.ten years later? Twenty years later? This movie isn’t big on details. Tristan is now ‘played’ by James Franco (Woooo! Franco!) in a chunky wool knit from the J. Crew 2003 winter catalog.

He and his hot foster brother, who they don’t bother to name for another thirty minutes and so I shall name Foster, find a trapdoor under the castle that leads to the back gardens of the foam-walled Castle Set C. If you think this trapdoor won’t come up later, you have never seen a movie before.

Lord Mark, who in the intervening years has snuck his old gauntlet from the set of A Knight’s Tale , is once again trying for British unity and peace. He’s smoking hot, also, which can’t hurt the peace process. He clearly loves Tristan like a son, and Foster seems to be chill with this, which is refreshing.

Also refreshing is the gale-force Irish wind blowing across the lovely visage of Sophia Myles, who plays the grown Isolde. She is standing at her mother’s grave gazing wistfully out to sea; if I have my guess, she’s looking for the little pot of ashes that was gently set into a shallow alcove and was expected to survive winds like this for years and years. How did these guys conquer all of Britain? Seriously.

Isolde’s maid Bragnae comes to fetch her on behalf of her father, King Mumblyface (no, seriously, this guy needed closed captioning like you cannot believe), who reigns from Castle Set A, and I only wish I was kidding. Turns out the beefcake general of the Irish army wants a wife, and Isolde is the best collateral King Mumblyface can deliver to ensure his general’s loyalty.

Isolde is upset and cries out in shock, “Am I to be traded like chattel?” to which an army of historians answers swiftly, “YES, BITCH.” (Historians can get kind of pissy.) Apparently, however, hers is the first arranged marriage in the history of Ireland, and when her husband-to-be shows up to impress her, he mentions her knowledge of herbs and conveniently shows her his blade (not a euphamism), poisoned with pufferfish oil. If you think she does not know the antidote to this very rare poison, you have never seen a movie before.

One Carmen Sandiego later, we’re back in Cornwall, where everyone farts around the rebuilt castle (Castle Set C) dropping exposition and waiting for the next Irish-attack set piece. We meet a bunch of British lords who are never introduced (for such a stupid film, the director assumed that the viewer had done a lot of legwork beforehand), including the moustache-preening Wessex, but the clear focus of these scenes is to reinforce the subtext that Rufus Sewell is hotter than the surface of the sun.

Oh, look, the Irish are here! They’ve come to claim a bunch of young slaves and put them in the wagon they borrowed from the set of Ever After. Franco is not having that, apparently, even though it’s clearly been all right the last ten to twenty years when it wasn’t his demographic getting dragged off. Typical. Lord Mark gives his grudging permission for his best fighters to go after a wagon full of extras and get their asses beat down.

And so it would go, except it turns out that Franco has totally seen Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so instead everyone bursts out of the ground and uses crossbows and is Christian Slater, and the whole thing works a treat. Everyone fights; Franco chooses to fight in his kicky Fair Isle, which I think is a sartorial mistake, but then he gets stabbed by the huge lieutenant and is paralyzed by the pufferfish oil, and I scream with laughter, because I don’t think it can get any worse.

Clearly, I have never seen a movie before.

Franco is set out to sea by his grieving family (Rufus, call me!), and his boat is lit on fire by a bunch of his friends on the honor guard as he sails peacefully past the ten people who live in Cornwall now. Wither the rescued extras? None can say, none can say.

Oh, look, Ireland! No map this time. Does the director trust us to remember the difference between Ireland and Britain? Will Franco end up in Canada without the map to guide him? I’m scared! Rufus, hold me.

Oh, no, turns out he is on the Irish coast, because Isolde, in a preposterously seamed frock from the Gowne Barnne, is running away! Oh, man, if I had a nickel every time a spunky medieval heroine ran away, I’d have a nickel to set next to her charred corpse after it was burned for witchcraft as a punishment for running away.

I could really use a nickel, too.

At any rate, Isolde finds him, and she and her maid drag Franco’s body from out of his boat (which does not look that charred to me – did mermaids blow out the flames?) and into the most convenient hut that has ever existed in the history of the world, ten feet away from where he washed up, and prestocked with a bunch of useful items like firewood and cooking pots and bandages. People must have washed up there all the damn time.

Peeling Franco’s sweater from his hairless beefcake chest, Isolde takes one look at him and immediately sheds all her clothing. Apparently he has hypothermia, and she must save him from freezing to death!

Then her maid gets in on the action. Oh haay! Medical care is SAUCY.

Unfortunately, Franco eventually regains consciousness, and he and Isolde engage in a secret courtship that seems prompted mostly by the fact that he’s her secret project and he has absolutely nothing else to do with his time. This entire block of the movie was so offensive to mine eyes that I have blocked it out and replaced it with a haiku.

Oh, holy fuck

They have zero chemistry

Why are they naked?

Thank you.

Isolde tends to Franco’s nearly fatal case of purple nurple.

When the Irish raiders return (I guess they took the long way? Maybe funeral boats get an express lane?), Franco is discovered, and Isolde shoves his ass into a boat proclaiming, “I need to know there’s more to the world, and I can’t know that if you die.”

This? Is smooth. I took notes. Best breakup line ever.

And somehow, without enough brain cells to rub together to warm his own body, Franco still manages to make it home, where a bewildered Lord Mark and conflicted Foster welcome him just long enough to present him with more exposition about uniting the tribes. Still. This really IS like the United Nations!

Ireland! I can hardly take these breakneck scene changes! King Mumblymouth tells his daughter she is to be the prize at a contest of prowess among the British barons. He says it with such marble-cheeked glee that I can begin to understand her frustration with the whole affair, but I really can’t sympathize with someone who is absolutely ignoring the way the entire world worked from the dawn of time riiight up until this afternoon at, like, 6 o’clock.

In an unintentionally hilarious scene, Franco offers to go in Lord Mark’s stead, without actually saying, “Because, you know.your gimp hand.” Rufus sells it, though, and grants Tristan grudging permission. I’m sensing a parenting habit with Lord Mark. Good thing that’s not going to backfire.

Okay, this next set piece goes on for eight million years. In Castle Set B, there’s the ring from Gladiator set up for everyone to fight, chess-tournament style. Sophia Myles sits around looking pretty, her talent wasted.

Fighting. Fighting. Fighting. Wessex is cheating, which you can tell because his opponents keep waggling their eyebrows and nudging him in the ribs and falling before the fight starts. Fighting. Fighting.

Franco wins, of course, and Isolde is inexplicably pleased, considering she dumped his ass, like, a week ago.

However, before you can say “they seriously have no chemistry whatsoever this is excruciating,” she’s on the raft from Mists of Avalon, being presented to Lord Mark, and I cannot even understand why she looks apprehensive. Rufus Sewell is an amazing actor. She should be excited she’ll get a chance to actually do something besides run lines at a beefcake.

Whatever. Women.

Having come to the decision never to speak of their illicit love, they speak about it at full volume in the middle of the great hall in the middle of the reception with Lord Mark two feet away, and seriously, if these two have a kid, it’s getting annexed by the Irish SO FAST.

Franco stomps off in a snit after being covered in glitter, and if I didn’t have to finish this damn column I would have been right behind him, because I might have to accept seaming from a costumer that doesn’t care enough to look up diagrams of extant garments, but I am not about to sit in a theatre and pretend that glitter existed. I call bullshit, movie. I call so much bullshit.

Franco arrives at an extra’s hovel in Village Set A, which you think he would recognize from the intro flashback, but what do I know. His friend lets him in with just a touch of delighted-boyfriend subtext, which would be awesome, but we should be so lucky.

We haven’t seen Foster in half an hour. I bet he’s with the wagon train of unrescued extras.

Mark, fortunately, is a kind husband (which Isolde completely ignores, because that would mean characterization and moral dilemma, and we like our sex without any doubts, thank you very much! WOOOFRANCO!), and for a time there is peace in Castle Set C.

However, in Village Set A, Franco is brooding, pining, his days and nights an empty rush of despair and trying to figure out how to get hypothermia again so Isolde will get naked.

(Note to Franco: The thickly-woven, clearly modern sweaters are not your best bet. Your last one drowned for a reason. Take a hint. The mermaids only want to help you.)

However, apparently Rufus Sewell is not enough for some people, and Isolde must once again seek solace in Franco’s arms. Because, you know. Hypothermia.

For fifteen minutes

They make out awkwardly.

I’m not saying shit.

Visit lovely Ireland!, where King Mumblymouth is going to invade England for what has to be the sixth time this week. Turns out Isolde was a ploy! Uh.somehow. Wessex is there, twirling his imaginary moustache so fast the human eye can’t see it. You are, however, welcome to twist an imaginary moustache at home.

At this moment do the Irish attack, supported by Wessex, all the other unnamed Barons, and Foster, who apparently joined them in a moment of confusion as he tried to find his name in the script. However, as soon as he shows them the magical trapdoor, he’s dispatched like the fucking Pony Express. Wessex and his invisible moustache are not playing around.

Isolde and Franco are discovered, and in a show of awesomeness that I feel is tantamount to a proposal, Lord Mark forgives them both and sets them up with the means to escape forever in a tiny boat and go to a magical bearface island somewhere.

Fight! Village Set A is once again decimated as production designers weep in horror, and Rufus straps on his metal hand and beats the shit out of all the invaders until the script tells him to stop so that a petulant Franco comes to the rescue.

And is stabbed in the gut. I promptly twirl my moustache so hard I sprain a finger.

Isolde runs back to the castle just in time to run into Mark, hauling Franco’s body out to the river’s edge. When Mark sees Isolde, there’s a truly priceless facial expression that manages to form the entire emotional backbone of this movie; then Rufus is gone into the mist like a supporting actor, never to be seen again.

Isolde kneels at Franco’s feet, watching him bleed out from what if no doubt a fixable wound upon which she is simply choosing not to use her magical healing powers. Excellent call, I say.

There’s some dialogue so hackneyed that all I heard was a high-pitched test pattern, and then, finally, finally, Franco dies. I lean forward, very excited about the awkward reunion scene between Isolde and Mark, and to watch the beginnings of a British alliance.

Turns out I get four pages of written summary, as if the director himself got so bored he wrote a book report for his own script rather than shoot the last twenty minutes and miss his tennis camp.

So, what have we learned from this movie?

1) Glitter existed.

2) As did sweaters.

3) Villains need moustaches to twirl as they plot their nefarious deeds. How else will we know they’re bad people?

4) No, seriously, glitter.

5) Any good actor will automatically be relegated to an underwritten background part. Any great actor will take over the film from back there. Sewell, I’m looking at you. Well done.

6) Sophia Myles should fire her agent.



Genevieve is a prolific writer of speculative fiction living in New York, but you’ll never find her there because millions of people live there and Genevieve likes her privacy. Examples of her fiction can be found in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Federations, and numerous other magazines and anthologies. Her first novel is forthcoming in 2011. Also? She has terrible taste in movies.


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