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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Tristan + Isolde (Blu-ray)
Tristan + Isolde (Blu-ray)
Kino // PG-13 // April 11, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $15.19 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted May 18, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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The Film:

Between the releases of Braveheart and Gladiator and roughly half a decade later, historical epics with sprawling cinematography and hefty personal drama enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, hearkening back to grand Hollywood productions of yesteryear. By the mid-2000s, however, a bit of fatigue had begun to set in with this style of production. Spins on Grecian mythology, Arthurian legend, Macedonian conquest and Japanese samurai honor had all stormed onto the big screen during that period, trotting out the biggest names Hollywood could muster year after year. Director Kevin Reynolds, who had already dabbled in historical folklore with the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood and contributed to the recent crop of epics with The Count of Monte Cristo, brings to life a classic Celtic legend in the same vein with Tristan + Isolde. Despite gorgeous locations, a few expressive performances, and sturdy-enough action, Reynolds' version of this Celtic tale about star-crossed lovers caught in a conflict over sovereignty in medieval Britannia comes up short in credibility and conviction.

The tale of Tristan and Isolde dates back roughly 300 years before William Shakespeare wrote "Romeo and Juliet", so any thoughts that it borrowed from the bard's romantic tragedy would be misplaced. It's understandable for someone to draw that conclusion, though, as this lesser-known story hinged on disputes between medieval Britain and Ireland also sparks a "star-crossed" romance not unlike the two young lovers caught in the fray between the Montagues and Capulets. To the Brits belongs Tristan (James Franco), a young man who was orphaned at a young age by Irish aggressors and taken in by Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), someone many view as a potential leader if the states of Britannia were to unite. To the Irish belongs Isolde (Sophia Myles), the beautiful daughter of their ruthless ruler who was sworn to marry one her father's most assertive warriors. Fate brings them together after a battle between the factions leaves Tristan wounded and in Isolde's care, blossoming into a forbidden romance with potential political ramifications.

With Baz Luhrmann's vivid, uniquely contemporary tale on Romeo + Juliet being the most recent version of a tale like this presented on the big screen, an opening was available for Tristan + Isolde to leave its mark. Not one to shy away from medieval splendor, director Reynolds captures the story's introductory moments with a keen, wide eye for the unblemished beauty of British forests and Irish coastlines, providing a misty, verdant landscape of textured beauty to behold between political meetings and grim battles. Echoing the transition from youth to adulthood from other historical epics of its type, Reynolds sets the stage for Tristan's growth from harrowing origins into a robust hero for the Briton people, powered by a melancholy past that gives him a vengeful presence. Coupled with subtle storytelling that doesn't rely on heavy exposition to convey what's going on between the warring sides, there's sturdy craftsmanship and effortless storytelling at play that'd allow for this Tristan + Isolde to endure alongside the many other cinematic depictions that it intentionally and unintentionally mirrors.

Doubts are cast over Tristan + Isolde from the moment that James Franco walks onto the screen, though, conveyed in a dissolve transition that shows the passing of less than a decade … yet shows a young boy growing into a man clearly in his mid-twenties. Riding on his newfound popularity from the Spider-man series of films, Franco holds a specific type of sarcastic charm that doesn't comfortably fit inside the skin of an older teenage would-be hero in a medieval setting -- a quasi-Romeo, if you will -- though that doesn't matter as much once he's in the presence of Sophia Myles as his Isolde. Despite the perceived age of the pair, Franco and Myles properly, if unadventurously, generate the problematic chemistry that almost immediately binds them together while Isolde nurses the warrior's wounds after finding him stranded on the Irish shore. The somber romanticism of the story works while in their presence, helped by the inherent layers of their family's political complexities.

The moving parts of Tristan + Isolde, which have been adapted by Paycheck and Manchurian Candidate screenwriter Dean Georgaris, clearly serves to enable and complicate the couple's romantic endeavors, though, without paying as much attention to erecting a serious historical epic as they should. So much of the story relies on events happening in precise gaps in time and under questionable circumstances dictated by the leadership of Britannia, as well as the decisions made by both Tristan and Isolde at significant moments in their relationship, that the operatic melodrama of its design progressively undermines the practical attitude of it all. Eventually, the story forces Tristan and Isolde to conduct their relationship in secret, to which they choose to use a hidden underground passage to get between a castle and the place where they meet to canoodle. Yet instead of using this spacious tunnel as an enclosed, out-of-vision place to get it on, they choose to meet under a bridge that's in plain sight of … well, anyone, especially those who routinely ride their horses along the path. It begs for them to get caught.

Therefore, the effort put into setting up Tristan + Isolde as a tragedy becomes incredibly transparent as the film progresses, from wrongdoers picking up on the couple's public flirtations to the ways in which their hidden relationship plays into the Irish forces' stratagems. This does produce a vigorous, rousing conclusion full of clanking blades and roaring fires, one which falls into the machinations of any number of cinematic epics of its ilk, yet which also intertwines with the broad-stroked aims of the Celtic legend and of Richard Wagner's operatic take on it. However, the weakened structure of the underlying story isn't sturdy enough to prop up the intentionally downtrodden romance of Tristan + Isolde, resulting in this operatic medieval melodrama that's emotionally functional yet lacks the validity to strengthen the weight of what's at stake while they continue pursuing their relationship. Despite visual beauty and tonal intensity, Reynolds' version comes across as an obligatory afterthought attempting to capture the same energy of those successful historical epics that triumphed and entertained before it.


Video and Audio:

Tristan + Isolde boasts fine photography as it cascades over the locations in both Ireland and Prague, with a color palette that steers away from other strong colors and more toward stony grays and rich greens, allowing flickers of orange and blue in very specific ways. Kino/Lober have gotten a hold of a fairly spectacular 1.85:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer for the material, one that allows the subtle warmth of skin tones and earthy browns of mud and garments to peek out from the image. Film grain is fairly strong, appearing natural at certain points and a little heavy in others, but the texture achieved by its appearance works well with the historical appearance. Fine detail crops up garments and in skin textures, as well as fluctuations in metal blades, wooden trunks, and of course stone structures throughout. There's never an absence of something engaging to look at, especially when battles kick into gear, and Kino's B;lu-ray properly captures the look of the film.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is similarly potent, possessing plenty of activity to the rear channels and in the lower-end spectrum. Tristan + Isolde projects a lot of the anticipated elements of a historical epic of its type. Clanking blades and slashes are sharp and pronounced, spreading across the front-end speakers. Roaring fire billows into lower-end activity, yet it also rages into the back channels as well, creating immersive environmental effects. Subtle environmental touches during quieter seaside moments and in an enclosed stony space -- where Isolde mends Tristan -- offer clear yet restrained effects. Dialogue is universally clear, very sharp and nuanced in interior sequences and aware of outdoor spaces during exterior moments, while the musical accompaniment persistently lingers across all channels without imposing upon the general sonic design. It's a fairly modern soundtrack for a robust historical epic, and Kino's sound treatment delivers in the ways one would expect.


Special Features:

The extras are duplicated from the original DVD release of Tristan + Isolde, nothing more and nothing less, which are led off by a pair of Audio Commentaries. The first comes from Producers Jim Lemlay and Anne Lai , which covers standard ground for a producer-centric track, tossing out anecdotes and revealing insights into the complexities of the shoot. The other one arrives from Writer Dean Georgaris , which also hits expected tones and topics from the writer of the film, revealing his process in adapting the source material as well as additions and reflections upon the origins. He's a charming, if low-key speaker who's clearly interested and invested in the source material.

The other substantive comes in the making-of featurette, Love Conquers All: The Making of Tristan + Isolde (29:16, 16x9 HD). The structure mirrors a lot of others mini-docs to hit home video at the time, mixing newly recorded interviews with director Kevin Reynolds, writer Dean Georgaris, and others with press-tour interviews from James Franco and Sophia Myles, interspersed between behind-the-scenes shots and clips from the film. The Franco-Myles discussion is a little fluffy, which stands out from the other more in-depth interviews, where they discuss the film's ties to Ridley and Tony Scott, the various differences in adaptations, the intricate production and costume design, and other topics in getting the film made. They've also included a pair of Gavin DeGraw Music Videos, a Theatrical Trailer, and a slew of TV Spots.


Final Thoughts:

While the occasional heroic epic slips out here and there, Tristan + Isolde marked one of the last in a long stream of them to spill out of the Hollywood machine during a blast of popularity toward the subgenre. The craftsmanship behind this straight-laced take on the Celtic legend has a lot going for it, from robust production design to capable actors and a lingering melancholy romanticism, projected against lush forests and coastlines in capturing the 1200s-era setting. The execution lacks cohesiveness, though, with the personalities and chemistry embodied by James Franco and Sophia Myles struggling to penetrate beneath the surface, while the more "realistic" elements interwoven into the tale to avoid the fantasy aspect of the original tellings add a degree of questionability to what happens. What results is a functional epic medieval melodrama that missed an opportunity to accomplish more, hindered by its iffy and contrived adaptation and muddled emotional clarity. Kino/Lorber have landed on some great audiovisual elements for the presentation, though, and have ported over the extras from the previous DVD release. It's deserving of a strong recommendation for fans, but those interested in historical epics will want to give this one a Rental.



Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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