Last night I finally got to see Tristan & Isolde. The short-hand version is that it is better than I expected and I can recommend the film.
As regular readers will remember from previous postings, I was worried after seeing the trailer that the film would be a facile teen romance. Indeed, there are a few moments from that genre, such as the horrifyingly bad line, "Why does loving you feel wrong?" For one mentally crippling moment, I feared that Tristan would reply, "If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right," but the movie never went over the cliff like that.
One of my worries was that the film would remove the magic potion element, and with it excise some of the more mature concerns about adult sexuality. Interestingly, the potion is gone, but there is a significant mention of Isolde's facility with potions, making me wonder if an earlier version of the script didn't retain the potion. In any case, the potion is gone, but by establishing firmly King Mark's love for both Tristan and Isolde, the movie gets beyond the typical childishness.
I would argue that the portrayal of King Mark is one of two real strengths of the film. Never do they let him become a villain. Even when, at one point, he is outraged and screaming out of control (spittle flying), his fury is completely justified, and we sympathize with him. For this reason, viewers are never able to completely hope that Tristan & Isolde get together, since King Mark would be dealt such a terrible and unjustified blow by the double betrayal. In this way, I prefer the film's Mark to Malory's Mark (though regular readers will also know that I don't much care for Malory's telling of the T&I story anyway).
The great weakness among the characters is that of King Donnchadh (Isolde's father). He is well-portrayed by David O'Hara, but he just can't hide that the character is written as an over-the-top bad guy. O'Hara plays him with as much subtlety as the script allows, but the "hey-I'm-a-bad-guy-in-a-black-hat" dialogue bleeds through.
Which leads then to the other of the two great strengths of the film, its subtle tone. The film opens with the very unpromising location title, "Britain - The Dark Ages," leading one to think it is going to be a stupid portrayal of the Middle Ages as being a time of idiots and fools rolling around in filth (wonderfully spoofed in the Monty Python and the Holy Grail line, "There's some wonderful filth over here, Dennis."). The "Dark Ages" error aside, the people in the film are normal humans. They bath. They have non-anachronistic technology. In other words, the film never becomes about either how barbaric people in the past were, nor about how noble and chivalric they were.
The best dialogue shares that subtlety. The first time they make love, Tristan asks Isolde, "How do you feel?" At this, I was bracing for the worst, for a Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Cruise/Meg Ryan-style oratory on how deep (and trite) her love is for him. Instead, she replies simply, "I don't know," and the scene ends. Probably a perfect response.
It avoids being overblown in symbolism.Very early in the film, King Mark loses his right hand, and Tristan becomes his symbolic right hand. The characters never point this out, leaving it to the viewer, so that when Isolde glances at Mark's false right hand (which has been removed) and we cut to a shot of Tristan, we understand that the hand, rather than being a sign that Mark is maimed, is a symbol of Tristan's constant presence in their lives. The constant references to the long-gone Romans in the film is a reminder to the characters that their individual lives are relatively unimportant, and will be swallowed up by time, lending power to their devotion to duty.
Some might complain that the film isn't historically accurate -- well, duh. It is the legend of Tristan & Isolde, not George & Martha Washington. They are already legendary figures, without a true historic home. So, let them exist in a faux Dark Ages rather than in our world.
One last note -- everyone else in the theater were couples; I was the only single (the wife was too tired to come). I sat through a bit of the credits, but I was still the first to get up because all the women were crying. Later, in the parking lot, I saw that one of the women was STILL crying as she walked to the car. So, ladies, though my Y chromosome prevented me from being similarly moved, Tristan & Isolde is a good film if you want a good cry.