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Knight Takes Queen

17 March 2006   |   Written by George Palathingal

Can Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds redeem himself with an ancient tale of nobility and adultery? George Palathingal reports.

The heartbreaking, action-packed, compellingly dramatic Tristan & Isolde might be the best period epic since Gladiator.

This is particularly impressive considering it was filmed by Kevin Reynolds, the director of cinematic uberflop Waterworld, and written by Dean Georgaris, who scripted the pitiful Tomb Raider sequel (presumably on the back of a matchbook, while drunk).

“Yeah, I know,” says Sophia Myles, the English actor who plays Isolde. “It’s so difficult because, y’know, you’re only as good as your last job in this business and sometimes it can take a while to shake a duff one off. But I think Kevin, he’s such a kind of sturdy director. And, y’know, to blame the downfall of a film on one person is just kind of ridiculous.”

Does he still cop it for Waterworld?
“I don’t think so. Tristan & Isolde was, like, a complete nightmare ’cause we were out in the elements, we were freezing and it was really, y’know, tough. But Kevin just said it was a breeze compared to Waterworld.”

It was worth the effort. After a glut of painfully dull films about legends from bygone eras such as King Arthur, Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven, Tristan & Isolde takes a classic story, homes in on its essentials and recounts it majestically.

It’s the 5th century AD and the Roman Empire has collapsed. Orphaned English warrior Tristan (James Franco from the Spider-Man movies) has been saved from death, and subsequently raised, by Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell). The noble Marke wants to wrestle his country into shape and out of the control of the Irish king.

It’s difficult to say much more without giving key plot details away. Given the film’s title, it won’t be a surprise to reveal Tristan and Isolde, the Irish king’s daughter, fall in love, only for her to have to later marry Marke, Tristan’s beloved surrogate father.

The film then pits the betrayal, passion and tragedy of this love triangle against numerous smartly executed action sequences, from ambushes to gladiatorial tournaments. Something for everyone? That was the idea, says Myles, who turns 26 on Saturday.

“In our hearts we were making a story that, y’know, a grandmother could tell to a child – just universal, really,” she says. “We were making it primarily because we all really believed in the story and felt that it was something that people could relate to.”

Better yet, this take on the tale of Tristan & Isolde dispenses with the rather naff subplots of hocus pocus and love potions in favour of something more plausible.

“Yeah, there were dragons in it, at one point,” Myles says. “I mean, it started as an oral legend, it was told by word-of-mouth, and then I think it was sung. It was only put into prose, like, in the 13th century, I think.

“[This version] is very honest with the way that it deals with, y’know, the issues of love, jealousy, deceit. It’s kind of, it’s on no one’s side. No one is the winner, no one’s the hero, really. I think you feel sympathy for all of the characters involved. I don’t think you can hate any of them – it’s a very complex situation.”

Poor marketing in the US seemed most directly responsible for the film’s meagre $US15 million ($20 million) box office there in January.

“I went to LA and I didn’t see any posters for Tristan & Isolde,” Myles says.

The actor justifiably believes the film’s commercial failure doesn’t necessarily reflect its artistic merit.

“I hate the whole kind of box-office thing, ’cause it’s weird how a film’s ‘success’, in inverted commas, is equated by how much money it makes in its opening weekend, as opposed to how many hearts it moves or how many people it kind of touches, you know what I mean?”