Fool Britannia

Washington City Paper | January 13, 2006
If there won’t always be an England, as the cliché has it, at least there will always be cinematic fables about the country now known as the United Kingdom. The tales of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Blitz today seem as American as Billy the Kid, having been absorbed by Hollywood long before mainstream British movie-making was colonized by Los Angeles’ major studios. To judge by the latest examples of Anglo-American historical fabulism, Tristan & Isolde and Mrs. Henderson Presents, one other old homily needs only a slight update: These accounts of illicit desire and risqué musicales gently request, “Very little sex, please—we’re British.”

An oft-told (and oft-altered) ballad of tragic infatuation, the legend of Tristan and Isolde may have some basis in fact; there are small clues that the tale’s three central characters actually existed in sixth-century Cornwall. Tristan & Isolde hews to the likely geography, but it’s deliberately fuzzy on other details. Texas-born director Kevin Reynolds, who made the similarly imprecise Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and writer Dean Georgaris, who scripted the second Tomb Raider flick, make their various Celts and Teutons all speak English. And they took the spellings of the major characters’ names from Wagner’s 1865 opera, which is why the title isn’t Tristan & Iseult. As for the young-hunks-in-love aspect of the story, it emulates Titanic as much as Braveheart.

The full-lipped lovers are James Franco as Tristan, whose parents were killed by brutal Irish raiders, and Sophia Myles as Isolde, the daughter of King Donnchadh (David O’Hara), the very man who commands those buccaneers. Their first meeting is a bit Blue Lagoon, except that the island they find themselves on is Ireland and they’re not entirely alone: Isolde is accompanied by her handmaid. Having been poisoned by Irish lout Morholt (Graham Mullins), who applies toxin to his sword blade before battle, Tristan was thought dead by his fellow Britons and set adrift for a sea burial. After landing on the other side of the Celtic Sea, he’s discovered by Isolde, an expert in “elixirs” and a fledgling Christian with an apparently prescient taste for the love-and-death verse of 17th-century poet John Donne. Deciding that the castaway hunk needs warmth, Isolde strips off her clothing and cuddles him, commanding her maid to do the same, until Tristan finally wakes to see Isolde’s beautiful, out-of-focus face. This therapeutic ménage à trois is the apex of Tristan & Isolde’s body heat.

Because she’s been betrothed by her father to Morholt, Isolde never tells Tristan her true name, and she insists that he return alone to Britain (which the film anachronistically terms “England”). He reluctantly does but soon returns, invited with other British knights to a tournament that Donnchadh hopes will divide them. The trophy is the king’s daughter, freed from her previous engagement by Morholt’s death (at the hands of Tristan, of course). The veiled prize is won in the name of Cornwall’s Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) by his loyal ward, Tristan, who doesn’t know that he’s just committed his true love to marry someone else. Isolde is ferried to Cornwall and married in a ceremony that recalls the torch-lit pomp of First Knight, a movie based on the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, another version of the Tristan and Iseult legend. Isolde finds Marke to be a kind husband but pines for Tristan. The two young pretties begin a perilous affair—further complicated by Donnchadh’s latest invasion, which cues the third of the movie’s largely interchangeable battle scenes.

In the earliest known versions of the story, Tristan and Isolde’s adulterous lust was explained by the fact that they drank a love potion. This movie understandably skips the magic, but it doesn’t propose much other motivation in its place. The romance is simply a matter of narrative necessity, and it’s carefully balanced against the intrigue and carnage required to keep Tristan & Isolde from being classified as a chick flick. Better, however, that the film had been just that. With their fast pans and quick cuts, Reynolds’ action sequences are facsimiles of the ones in a half-dozen recent sword-and-bow pictures, including the latest by Tristan & Isolde executive producer Ridley Scott, Kingdom of Heaven.

The violence is more convincing than the eroticism, at least, but both are pallid. “English” pride aside, perhaps it’s time to admit that today’s masters of cinematic pageantry and passion all speak Chinese. Tristan, Iseult, and the like can all rest in peace while Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai compose our new myths.

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