Like Beowulf and The Odyssey, the medieval story of Tristran and Isolde (or Yseult, Iseult, or however you want to spell it) is one of those cornerstone legends that no one seems capable of turning into a memorable film. Maybe it's because nobody believes in love potions anymore. Maybe it's because adulterers don't always make sympathetic characters. Whichever the case, this new version directed by Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, Waterworld) isn't going to change things. It loses the love potion, but moves so sluggishly that someone must have been dosing the cast and crew with Nyquil instead.
The lovers, played here by James Franco and relative newcomer Sophia Myles, don't meet until near the 40-minute mark, by which time the film has established their parentage, depicted some key moments from their youth, and given viewers no reason to care about either of them. He's a fifth-century Brit orphaned in an across-the-channel raid by an Irish king. (Oh, when will the Irish stop oppressing the British?) Raised by King Marke of Cornwall (Rufus Sewell), he grows into a strapping young man eager to fight against Irish aggression. She's the Irish king's daughter. After a poisoned sword leads Franco's men to declare him dead, his funeral boat takes him across the Irish Sea (!) and into Myles' healing hands. (Her powers even allow her to miraculously quote John Donne poetry from more than a thousand years in the future.) They reluctantly go their separate ways and all is peaceful until, some time later, Franco unwittingly wins Myles in a tournament from which he's promised to a return with a wife for Sewell.
The rest of the movie is kind of like that season of Friends where Ross and Joey were both in love with Rachel, only with considerably more PG-13 swordplay and considerably less Matt LeBlanc. But Tristan & Isolde doesn't have many more cast members than Friends. Reynolds must have been working from a book called How To Shoot An Action Epic On A Romantic-Comedy Budget. Britain and Ireland appear to be home to about three dozen people, and the action scenes all involve the same five characters fighting in close-up. That might not have mattered if the love story had worked, but Franco—who's done fine work on Freaks And Geeks and as Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man movies—gives the kind of intense, Method-y performance that's in love with its own brooding and nothing else. It's difficult to see why Myles would prefer him to the kindly Sewell, and a movie that explored that angle might be worth seeing. Maybe next time.