The much-adapted Arthurian legend of Tristan and Isolde gets a teen-friendly makeover in Kevin Reynolds' Tristan + Isolde. Marketed for girls as a pre-Romeo and Juliet tragic romance and for guys as a Braveheart variant, Tristan + Isolde bypasses the mythic tone of Richard Wagner's opera to approximate English history (a la 2004's King Arthur) without forsaking storybook romance. The inoffensive results get the job done, but sadly fail to excite.
In Britain's Dark Ages, boy Tristan happily enjoys his first kill (a rabbit) with his warrior-diplomat father. Familial bliss dissipates when Tristan is orphaned by war (taking the harsh view, one might say the lad gets his father killed and another man's hand cut off). Left to the care of newly one-handed Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), Tristan grows into a brawny brooder (James Franco) ready to carry out Lord Marke's battle plans. In the power vacuum left by the defunct Roman Empire, Irish warlords dominate the English territories, but if the squabbling English tribes can unite, they can win their autonomy by defeating the Irish.
Meanwhile, longing lass Isolde (Sophia Myles) wilts as her father, Irish King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara), arranges her marriage as a matter of political expediency. Luckily for Isolde, Tristan offs her fiance, who in turn poisons Tristan. Believing him to be dead, Tristan's mates send him off on a floating pyre, which conveniently lands at Isolde's Irish feet. As Isolde nurses Tristan to health, the pair fall in forbidden love.
Their "enemy" status turns out to be the least of their worries when duty forces Tristan to win Isolde as Lord Marke's bride. Furtive glances follow: off to her sour honeymoon, Isolde promises Tristan, "I'll pretend it's you." "Why long for things if they're not meant to be ours?" sighs Isolde, not long before an anachronistic reading of John Donne's "The Good-Morrow."
Of course no threat of misplaced marriage or conspiratorial treachery can sever the couple's eternal love. Though Sewell—usually cast as a cad—begins to look a bit smug upon Marke's marriage, screenwriter Dean Georgaris (The Manchurian Candidate) and Reynolds admirably acknowledge Marke's cuckolded victimization. Unfortunately, the time-consuming political maneuverings of the opposing leaders fail to engage much interest until they provide the impetus for an unconvincing resolution.
Executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott considered Tristan + Isolde a dream project, but the realized film is slack, bereft of energy and literally drained of color. Somewhere between Georgaris' dialogue ("Why does loving you feel so wrong?") and the stolid but unremarkable leading performances, Reynolds' film turns leaden. Location shooting in Ireland and the Czech Republic helps save the endangered species of lovely forest-primeval storybook images (mood-lit trees and mossy beds), but the "stolen moments that leave too quickly" somehow stretch out to an over-two-hour run time.