Title: Tristan & Isolde
Year: 1981
Genre: Adventure, Romance
Director: Veith von Fürstenberg
Screenwriters: Veith von Fürstenberg
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Antonia Preser, Peter Firth

Tristan & Isolde is a film of uncommon depth and feeling, a tough, thrilling melodrama that expands beyond its simplistic doomed-love conceit to become an epic story about love, yes, but also loyalty, and duty, and sacrifice. These are not groundbreaking subjects for a movie to tackle, especially not for one set in a long-ago century. But Tristan & Isolde distinguishes itself by making the characters people instead of types and painstakingly setting out each character arc. This is a movie full of Big Moments, and because it is careful, because it takes its time, those moments — often sentimental, sometimes verbose — feel earned, important, right.

The story takes place in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire, when the Irish tried to take advantage of the power vacuum by keeping the various Tribes of Britain — Angles, Sexons, Jutes — separated. Trying desperately to unite them is Lord Mark (Rufus Sewell), who is also grooming his adoptive son Tristan (James Franco, perhaps a tad contemporary) for big things, presumably eventual succession, much to the chagrin of Mark’s real son Melot (Henry Cavill). Elsewhere, Isolde (Sophie Myles) the daughter of the Irish King Donnchadh, is to be married off to the King’s brutish (and enormous) general (Graham Mullins). When Tristan dispatches Isolde’s betrothed in battle and is himself thought dead, only to be rescued by the disgruntled Isolde, who lets him recuperate in a tent by the beach, well, you can imagine.

Thus far, the inevitable, somewhat tepid romance between Tristan and Isolde is probably the least interesting thing about the film, which really hums in the scenes between Franco and Sewell, as well as in the rather broadly imagined but nonetheless effective scenes that illustrate the politics of the tribes as they try to balance their interests in freedom from the Irish, the risks involved in fighting, and individual desires for power and influence. Filmed in gloomy, grey tones — this is another of those movies where sunshine seems not to exist — Tristan & Isolde doesn’t, despite the advertising, seem interested in being a Nicholas-Sparks-in-the-Dark-Ages weepie, and is likely to very quickly disabuse anyone of that notion. And though there are some attempts to turn this into a “quintessential” love story (perhaps originating in the marketing department, though you never know), it is fairly clear from the get-go that director Kevin Reynolds is interested in other things.

There are further complications; if you’d prefer not to know any more, you might bail out here. Tristan winds up winning Isolde for Lord Mark in a tournament, without knowing who she is, with the result of having to stand by and watch her marry him, and then content himself with an occasional rendezvous under the bridge. He is loyal to Lord Mark, wracked with guilt, and unable to bring himself to do more.

Here, the film does something very intriguing, because Lord Mark is a good guy, through and through. “He is a kind man; I cannot hate him,” says Isolde, and Tristan knows that what he is doing is a betrayal of the first order. Our sympathies are profoundly split, and when you add the impending conflict with the Irish (along with a tribe head eager to betray Lord Mark), you have a compelling, even epic web of drama. The screenplay is smart enough to allow us to like all of the protagonists — they mostly act in intelligent ways, and consistently refuse to get carried away, as movie characters are wont to do: if Tristan and Isolde get discovered, it’s not because they’re anything less than careful and circumspect. Halfway through the film, then, I realized that I honestly did not know how it was going to end.

And while the wrap-up is less than groundbreaking, it is satisfying and entirely correct. The final scene contains a key confrontation between two characters that’s striking in just how right it is, a chillingly plausible culmination of everything we’ve learned about these people. The need to provide a dramatic climax compromises nothing. A film about loyalty, Tristan & Isolde takes its own message to heart: it’s as loyal to its characters as Tristan is to his land, his father, his love.


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