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'Tristan and Isolde': A Pleasantly Old-School Epic


Next we'll hear about a film that our reviewer describes as `boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and so on from there.' It's a new film called "Tristan & Isolde," and it revisits a classic medieval story of forbidden love. Here's Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION critic Kenneth Turan.

KENNETH TURAN reporting:

Love stories come and go, but few have the durability of "Tristan & Isolde." Even before German composer Richard Wagner, people have been fascinated by this Dark Ages tale of star-crossed passion and devotion that would not die.

(Soundbite of "Tristan & Isolde")

Unidentified Man #1: On behalf of Cornwall, I offer your daughter a place on our throne, the throne of England, united behind one leader.

Unidentified Man #2: Isolde, perhaps it is just that he who took your husband provides one.

Ms. SOPHIA MYLES: (As Isolde) I'm yours.

Unidentified Man #2: No. Tristan of Aragon has won you on behalf of Lord Marke. Go.

TURAN: Director Kevin Reynolds is not exactly in Wagner's league, but he's turned out a satisfactory version of this story of manly men and fervent women. This "Tristan" is a pleasantly old-fashioned epic romance. It's a bit ungainly, but finally it feels like having one of those wonderful adventure books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth or Howard Pyle come alive on the screen. This is a more realistic, pared-down "Tristan" than we've had in the past. It does away with the pestilent dragon of the original legend, as well as the love potions of Wagner's opera.

It also adds a political element by presenting the romance against the backdrop of the weak tribes of Britain yearning to unite against the region's dominant power, Ireland. Circumstances conspire to place a seriously wounded Tristan on a deserted Irish beach, where Isolde secretly nurses him back to health without revealing her royal status. Naturally, the pair fall in love. Placing healing leaves on someone's wounds tends to do that to people. They know it is not to be, but they still can't avoid the crisis of love vs. duty that has made their story a touchstone for generations.

(Soundbite of "Tristan & Isolde")

Mr. JAMES FRANCO: (As Tristan) I won you in my king's name.

Ms. MYLES: (As Isolde) But I'm yours. You touched me, and I you.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Tristan) It doesn't matter.

Ms. MYLES: (As Isolde) It's the only thing that matters, Tristan. Leave with me. I'll go anywhere.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Tristan) Your marriage will end a hundred years of bloodshed.

Ms. MYLES: (As Isolde) My marriage to another man.

Mr. FRANCO: (As Tristan) Isolde.

TURAN: This "Tristan" has also done well in casting lovers who really seem to care about each other. James Franco is appropriately handsome and dashing as the great British warrior. Even better is Sophia Myles, graceful and luminous as the Irish princess who is the other half of the equation.

(Soundbite of "Tristan & Isolde")

Ms. MYLES: (As Isolde) If things were different, if we lived in a place without duty, would you be with me?

Mr. FRANCO: (As Tristan) That place does not exist.

TURAN: "Tristan & Isolde" is not all love. In fact, it features chunks of professionally done action, including copious amounts of smiting enemies with mighty swords. And the convincing look of the film makes us feel we're in a reasonable facsimile of pagan Britain. Realism, however, only goes so far. "Tristan & Isolde" does have its slightly silly moments. But rather like those fondly remembered epics of Hollywood past, it's got enough energy and entertainment value to carry the day.

INSKEEP: The comments of Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.

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