Tristan and Isolde was director Kevin Reynolds’ last movie to see theatrical release. Screenwriter Dean Georgaris never had another screenplay turned into a feature film. Producer Ridley Scott seemed to have distanced himself from it even as it was being filmed. It was the last film Franchise Pictures distributed before going bankrupt. James Franco, the male lead, regretted it so much, he bothered to write it up as his favorite mistake, 7 years later.
I saw it by chance (chance engineered by Amazon.com). I had wanted to re-watch ‘Elizabeth’ in the earlier days of Netflix and Amazon Video, when neither had it. But Amazon resourcefully recommended Tristan and Isolde. I watched it. I thought ‘huh’. But then a few months later I watched it again, and thought it brilliant. Unfortunately, any friends I have managed to get to see it share only my initial reaction of ‘huh’.
After becoming a bit obsessed with T&I, I bought the DVD, not so much because I needed the physical DVD, but because I was hoping to express gratitude and in a miniscule way boost global sales. I was also hoping that the extra features would show that the cast and crew appreciated the brilliance of the movie even if the film critics had failed to do so (it was 32% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). But all the interviews contained were repeated complaints about an extremely tight budget, frigid water, and gnats.
My last hope was Georgaris, the screenwriter. After all, even though to my untrained eyes and ears the film looked and sounded great, it was the intricately woven plot and the sparing and intriguing dialogue that surely made the movie. Alas, all Georgaris had to say was that he was originally thinking of setting it in space, and that an earlier draft was deemed too cheesy by a friend.
It’s not my favorite realistic romance (that goes to Before Sunrise + Before Sunset), but it’s my favorite unrealistic romance. Not that I know all that much about the genre (for example, I’ve never seen Titanic and can count on 1 hand the number of romance novels — all horrible — I’ve attempted to read). The weird early-teen magic-potion suicide mix-up of Romeo and Juliet never much made sense to me, and neither did Wuthering Heights (even the house-remodel in the Notebook seemed a bit strange).
I won’t spoil the movie by giving away to much, just in case you are looking for that ‘huh’ experience. What separates this movie from others (besides the awesome screenplay) is having a male romantic lead who is brawny, brainy, and loyal to a cause/person (and gets to show this off during the movie). But unlike other hero-focused movies where the romance subplot is intended as another opportunity for the hero to overcome a challenge (e.g. by rescuing the girl), Tristan doesn’t rescue Isolde (at least not intentionally), but instead she saves his life. Maybe I read too much Prince Valiant as a kid, but what other movie has a valiant knight in an interesting romantic entanglement? You’d think there would be scores of these, but… And so I join scores of Amazon and imdb users in adoring a movie that is unloved by its makers and critics.