In the beginning of the Dark Ages the warlords of England are brutally kept in line by the Irish King Donnchadh (David O'Hara). Tristan (James Franco) has grown up hating the Irish for killing his family and has made a strong allegiance to father figure Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) while Isolde (Sophia Myles) Donnchadh's daughter has grown up under her father’s thumb. After a fierce battle that leaves Tristan near death he washes up on Irish soil and is nursed secretly back to health by Isolde who tells him she’s someone else. The two fall madly in love but Tristan must return to England before he’s discovered. Meanwhile Donnchadh decides to stage a tournament between all the champions of England with his daughter as the prize. Tristan ends up winning the princess' hand for Lord Marke but is horrified to find out she’s his own true love. Tristan and Isolde now must suppress their love for the sake of peace and the future of England. But despite their best efforts to stay apart the lovers are driven inexorably together. Despite the fact that Franco (Spider-Man) and Myles (Underworld) look lovely rolling around on the ground in romantic trysts and gazing forlornly at one another you don’t necessarily feel any heat between them. That seems to be mostly the fault of Franco who plays the young Tristan far too stoically. We understand he’s a tortured soul torn between duty and love with his eyes perpetually half-filled with tears. But couldn’t he have shown a little more passion (and while he’s at it washed his hair)? The luminous Myles is better at showing her burning desire but she too is left many times sad and weepy. Only Sewell (Legend of Zorro) who is usually delegated to playing bad guys shows any kind of raw emotion as he first falls genuinely in love with his bride--and then is betrayed by her and the only son he ever knew. He’d probably make a great King Arthur. As the Celtic myth of Tristan and Isolde predates the Arthurian legend as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet you can easily see how those two more famous stories were possibly formed. Tristan & Isolde is a classic story of forbidden passion set against political upheaval as well as a tale about a tragic love triangle. Producers Ridley and Tony Scott had been fascinated with the legend for many years and finally got the opportunity to bring it to the big screen. Ridley however who directed last summer’s medieval fare Kingdom of Heaven wisely chose to hand over the directing reins to Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) who adequately paints a picture of a time when chaos reigned. Maybe Tristan & Isolde is not as compelling or romantic as the king of them all Braveheart but it is certainly far more accessible than say Kingdom of Heaven. Sorry Ridley.
London bachelor John (Jack) Worthing who has a murky background and his roguish spendthrift friend Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff pursue romance but are each deceitful in their own ways. Jack who is guardian of his beloved niece Cecily Cardew at an estate outside London invents a brother named Ernest so he can escape to London whenever the whim hits and hook up with pal Algy. Both bachelors are suitors but their lies and the rampant snobbery of the day get in the way. Jack hopes to marry Gwendolen Fairfax but her rigidly elitist and dominating mother Lady Bracknell is put off by Jack's lowly origins. (Parents unknown he was found as a package at Victoria Station.) While Jack locks horns with Bracknell in London Algy journeys to Jack's country home to woo Cecily and gains entree by claiming to be Ernest Jack's invented brother. When Jack returns to the country to announce that the fictive Ernest is dead he must confront pal Algy who has successfully re-invented himself as Ernest and a host of deceits. But delicious revelations unleashed by the devoted nanny-turned-tutor Miss Prism save the day for both fib-prone suitors. Happily Cecily and Gwendolen share their suitors' romantic inclinations and tolerance for tall tales.
The burning question in many minds is no doubt whether Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde) the only American in this veddy Brit film can carry an English accent. The answer is a resounding "yes." Her success as privileged ingenue Cecily in both accent and overall performance is all the more commendable because she is surrounded by some of the brightest and best of Brit acting talent. Colin Firth as Jack and Rupert Everett as Algy are seductively charming and appealing as the spoiled but smitten bachelors. Frances O'Connor as Gwendolyn convinces as the very "upper " but rebellious daughter of the imperious Lady Bracknell. And Dame Judi Dench as the formidably snotty and harsh Bracknell is scary enough for a horror film. Tom Wilkinson recently nominated for his role in In the Bedroom is appropriately genteel as the clergyman with a soft spot for Miss Prism sweetly portrayed by vet English actress Anna Massey brother of Donald and daughter of Raymond both legendary thesps. Art house fans will most appreciate the fine cast that armed with Wilde's words and ideas valiantly battles the film's excesses in a mission to entertain. As a dream ensemble they help put across Wilde's amusing story of mistaken identity naughty habits and laughable upper-crust foibles.
Oliver Parker was obviously on a shorter leash when he earlier directed his more disciplined and faithful adaptation of another Oscar Wilde play An Ideal Husband. With Earnest Parker has gone auteur with a fury by crafting a bloated overproduced extravagantly opened-up version of the concise play that Wilde would hardly recognize. Here the lavish costumes sumptuous sets overbearing musical soundtrack and Parker-invented flights into fantasy (Cecily has recurrent daydreams of a white knight coming to the rescue) and flashback (Bracknell has a Parker-minted lowly-dance-hall chorine past) all but drown out Wilde's streamlined savage wit and whack at upper-class conceits. Still Parker allows his illustrious performers to shine through all the fluffery.