The early new year usually brings out unremarkable fare and Tristan & Isolde isn't the captivating tale during 5th Century Celtic clashing that its advertising promises. It's a rather lifeless historical epic with royal intrigue, star-crossed passion, but not the stuff that legends are made of, nor an arresting spin on "Romeo + Juliet."
In Kevin Reynolds' latest, there is forbidden love entwined around a fair amount of swordplay. Yet, James Franco doesn't make his English warrior prince very appealing beyond his cadre of female supporters. He often pouts in ways reminiscient of Hayden Christensen as detractors of Attack of the Clones want to forget.
Franco has excelled on the small screen as James Dean and opposite Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the Spider-Man films. Here, the torment outside of the battle sequences don't resonate opposite Irish princess Isolde, as played by Sophia Myles (Underworld). The character seems to epitomize the notion of independence, with a spiritual sense cognizant that change is about to occur.
The story by Dean Georgaris tries hopelessly to invigorate the Celtic myth, perhaps drawn from the Wagner opera, without the composer's music. A love triangle develops with the spouse of Isolde, who happens to be the surrogate father of Tristan, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell of The Legend of Zorro), who also is the one to be coronated.
This marriage is supposed to help pacify things between old English tribes like the Saxons and Angles to thwart the plan against a United England. Ireland is truly the aggressor led by the stoic, almighty King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara of Hotel Rwanda). Sewell may have the most interesting character with noble, paternal vulnerability, yet the attenuated plotting goes against the love-at-first-sight leads and him, too. Especially in his scenes opposite the sinister, but not broadly wicked O'Hara.
Similar to Gangs of New York, Tristan's family is decimated by a violent attack, this time by the Irish. Lord Marke protected young Tristan, losing his right hand during the raid. And, his motherless saviour turns out to be the Princess living under the structured guidelines of King Donnchadh. A chaste romance ensues on the shore of Ireland with herbs and oils to curtain a so-called Viking funeral. Their affair will be fleeting when Tristan suddenly has to return back home across the Irish Sea.
While the production admirably textures this intense, tragic adventure with desaturated teal hues in a close-knit manner, it drains the scope of a wide spectacle, rendering battle sequences and visual effects to be more awkward than awesome.
What comes across from Reynolds, known for his collaborations with Kevin Costner, is something well short of what romantics and action fans want. Tristan & Isolde just doesn't have the vitality of recent, flawed Hollywood pictures like King Arthur and Kingdom of Heaven. It slogs, rather than soars, even with an incendiary climactic turn that features a beheading. But, executive producer Ridley Scott's long-dormant project (shelved smartly in favor of Alien) touching on repressed love for the sake of England is a developmentally disabled Braveheart indeed.