My only love sprung from my only hate, too early seen unknown, and known too late! - Juliet Capulet
As touted, before Romeo and Juliet of Verona, there was Tristan and Isolde of England-Ireland. Director Kevin Reynolds' projects have included before, retellings of folk legends, like his Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the Count of MOnte Cristo. And as with all Hollywood-ized retelling, there's always the bastardization of the storyline, whether you like it or not. Then again, them being legends, it will depend on who's telling the story. So if you'd like a different take on the series of events in this love story, you might want to click here.
Set during the time when the Romans withdrew from England, and when Ireland was ravaging the English because of the power vacuum, we see a young Tristan (Thomas Sangster, the same kid from Nanny McPhee) owing a life debt to Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), who saved Tristan from impending death at a sacrifice of his right hand. Orphaned, Tristan serves Lord Marke dutifully, and becomes more favoured than Marke's nephew Melot (Henry Cavill), with his fighting skills and fierce loyalty.
In one of their revenge missions, Tristan (now James Franco) secures victory at the expense of being poisoned, and thought to have died. As Fate would have it, his body in a flaming boat survives the vast seas to get himself onto the beachhead of Ireland (which I thought was a bloody ridiculous plot loophole, oh well), where he's found by Isolde (Sophia Myles) and her maid. Nursing him back to health and at the same time giving her *ahem* honour to Tristan (I believe also that if Tristan was some burly soul, this would not happen. Very shallow, I know), it doesn't take a genius to realize that owing 2 life-debts with only 1 life to live, is a problem which will manifest itself later.
So when Tristan later discovers he won a competition on behalf of Lord Marke, and the prize being Isolde's hand, our lovers are stuck in a rut, despite having opportunities earlier to leave their respective kingdoms and live a life of their own. For Tristan, he's torn between duty and love. Like I said, two different life-debts to repay, how do you choose? He chose to be the lover on the side, for their nightly secret trysts in darkened fields.
You'll see shades of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet here, with our star crossed lovers, Juliet's Nurse, the feuding families, deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio, and of course, the inevitable ending. HOwever, Romeo and Juliet were married, as opposed to the adulterous couple of Tristan + Isolde, which seemed more like Troy, in having Isolde as a Helen-like character sowing the seeds to the downfall of the fragile kingdom alliance.
Fans of James Franco must have been swooning in their seats as they get to see their idol undressed and getting it on (yes, I swear in today's screening, everyone heard a girl gasping for air). Franco did quite a spectacular job brooding, with his love lorn looks, and plenty of angst stemmed from Tristan's losing his parents at an early age. Sophia Myles was pleasing to the eyes, but I thought she looked a bit pudgy - people in the past must have loved their females with plenty love handles, otherwise it must be the unfashionable layers of clothes.
It's a pretty decent love story with some nifty action sequences thrown in, though the contest for Isolde's hand looked like it took place in a poor man's version of Gladiator, and the final battle felt like a cheaper ripoff of The Two Towers' assault of Helm's Deep. And not to forget, there's also enough of the usual medieval-politics (betrayals, power struggles, corruption, etc) to provide enough buoy to keep the movie afloat.
Strictly for die hard fans of love stories set in the medieval past, for those who have never heard this story and would make do with a Hollywood version, or for groupies of James Franco. May I hear a squeal now please?