Reviewer: Charity Bishop
England is torn by dividing conquerors after the withdrawal of the Romans and lies at the mercy of the invading forces of Ireland, the one truly formidable single force left in the world. The Irish burn and pillage, making off with women and children as slaves and ending the life of young Tristan's parents. Just as the boy is about to be killed, the baron of the near lands, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) intervenes and saves his life, losing his hand in the process. Tristan is raised in his keeping and grows to be one of the finest fighters in Marke's army. Twenty years later nothing has changed between Ireland and England. Tristan (James Franco) is chosen to lead a force against the most recent conquerors, seeking to make off with slaves. The battle is won at great cost to Marke's forces and Tristan is lost. Believing him killed by a poisoned sword, they set him adrift. The burned-out boat miraculously lands on Irish shores and is found by Isolde (Sophia Myles), the only daughter of the Irish king.
Intrigued by the survivor of what seems a great battle, Isolde conceals him in a fishing hut on the beach and nurses him back to health, against the advice of her loyal nurse. Through spending time together the two eventually fall in love, but when the boat is discovered on the beach, Tristan must return to his own country before being hunted down and killed. Isolde knows to accompany him would only prompt further violence and remains behind. Returning to Lord Marke and seeking a way in which to return to Ireland and search for what he believes is a "maid" in the king's household, Tristan leaps at the opportunity to win Marke a wife. In a cunning attempt by the Irish king to turn Britain against itself, he has offered his daughter and her lands as a reward for the man who wins a tournament. Tristan fights on behalf of Lord Marke, but when the woman's veil falls he discovers that it is Isolde.
The story has its unsavory aspects and there are many instances in which the audience wants to intervene with common sense, but it's a picturesque tragedy that paints a realistic depiction of the anguish adultery causes in the lives of everyone involved. Both Isolde and Tristan are wracked with guilt as they conduct their love affair, because as Isolde puts it, "Lord Marke is a good man... I cannot hate him." In a twist, Lord Marke turns out to be the truly heroic individual of the story. I cannot help feeling that had Tristan and Isolde told him the truth before the wedding, he would have not stood in the way of their happiness. Instead they chose denial and deception and brought ruination and unhappiness into their lives. That being said, the movie was very enjoyable. It promoted the right feelings of disappointment and sorrow and was beautiful to look at. It is a little brutal in places but most of the violence is kept fairly low key so not to offend its target audience, romantically-inclined females who want to shed a few tears at the end of the day. There are several brief instances of severed heads being shown off to troops. Men and women are slaughtered in battle; others are mown down with arrows and slain with swords. There's no foul language. The sexual content is present but not overly pervasive. There are five brief head-and-shoulders love scenes, mostly with kissing and mild movement -- three between Tristan and Isolde (this doesn't include the two cuddling, kissing, and waking up beside one another) and two between Isolde and her husband.
I do not like stories about adultery because they go against everything I believe is true, but the realism of this film shows the rare aftermath: the anguish, the suffering, the disappointment, the betrayal that follows forsaking morality. As Isolde puts it late in the film, "Why does loving you feel so wrong?" She laments on another occasion that it must be all secrecy and deception, that they cannot show their feelings in public or do something as innocent as hold hands in the marketplace. It's not a story that glorifies adultery, but appears to give weight to its consequences. That in itself is the glimmer of redeeming value in the sad legend of Tristan & Isolde.