Kevin Reynolds’ take on one of the great romantic myths has a great deal in common with Antoine Fuqua’s stab at King Arthur – both are set in the Dark Ages, after the withdrawal of Roman rule from Great Britain, and deal with the creation of a new, unified country out of squabbling tribes who are harried by a militarily superior, ruthless external enemy. Moreover, they both try to peel the fantasy out of the myth – instead of magic, we get a bit of herbalism – and put forward a vision of the heroic story as if it were taken back to its roots, showing the grubby reality which will inspire stories told down through the ages. The films even look alike, though Reynolds goes even further into turquoisey murk and desaturated muddiness in order to establish that this can claim a verisimilitude not found in other versions of the tale; a quirk being that, while King Arthur had to compete with everything from Camelot and Monty Python to Lancelot du Lac and Prince Valiant, there’ve been surprisingly few film adaptations of this particular tale, so this version’s revisions and reworkings are likely to fall flat on audiences unfamiliar with the original.
As often in Dark Ages epics, it opens with a massacre survived by the child who will grow up to be the hero: King Marke (Rufus Sewell) of Cornwall loses his pregnant wife and hand when a gathering of the tribal heads of Britain is crashed by the thuggish forces of King Donnchadh (David O’Hara) of Ireland (who has a rooting interest in keeping Great Britain disunited) but adopts orphaned young Tristan of a neighbouring tribe. Tristan grows up (as James Franco) to be a girly-haired super-warrior who defeats Morholt (Graham Mullins), Donnchadh’s nastiest general, while rescuing captive women from Irish raiders but suffers an apparently fatal wound from Morholt’s poisoned blade. Melot (Henry Cavill), Marke’s nephew and obviously torn between devotion to his father’s wishes and resentment of the hero, gives Tristan a proper funeral, shoving him out to sea in a burning boat, whereupon he washes up on the shores of Ireland and is found by Isolde (Sophia Myles), daughter of Donnchadh and unwilling fiancée of brutish Morholt. Though her nanny (Bronagh Gallagher) disapproves, Isolde nurses the youth back to health – her first treatment involves both women stripping naked and cuddling the wet boy to get warmth in him – and they fall obviously in love, but part without him learning the vital fact that she’s the daughter of Britain’s greatest enemy.
Then, as it happens, Donnchadh decides that since military might isn’t doing much for him, he will set the British tribes against each other by offering his suddenly eligible daughter as a prize to whichever champion bests all the others – Tristan naturally triumphs, defeating the cheating and scheming Wictred of Glastonbury (Mark Strong) and claiming the prize, on behalf of Marke not himself (if only she’d lifted her veil at the tourney!). Then, things fall into Camelot/First Knight lines but with a happier ending – after much glooming and fuming, the lovers resume their nightly meetings by an old Roman villa (using an important-to-the-plot secret tunnel out of the castle) but Marke blissfully falls for his new trophy bride, and Wictred goes into full-on scheming dastard mode by making deals with Donnchadh and the green-with-envy (but deep-down decent) Melot. It winds up with a siege, a fight, bad people skewered, noble self-sacrifice and a romantic union which presumably didn’t do anything for Anglo-Irish relations over the next fifteen centuries. There are distinctive aspects (it’s unusual in Hollywood films to find Irish baddies and English goodies), but it see-saws between serious historo-archaeology, unconvincing amour fou (the young leads really don’t strike sparks, which makes you wonder why the silly girl doesn’t stick with the acceptable Sewell) and Saturday matinee swashbuckling. Most fun comes from the villainy – with O’Hara glowering hairly, Ronan Vibert advising out of the side of his mouth Alan Rickman-style and Strong (following turns in Oliver Twist and Syriana) pitching fair to become an all-purpose nasty for our times.