Through the Eyes of a Romantic

Tristan & Isolde (the movie) is a retelling of the ancient Celtic tale about two star-crossed lovers. Before viewing the movie, I wasn’t aware of this tale. The promo tag line, however, tipped me off to the outcome. Before there was Romeo and Juliet there was: Tristan & Isolde. Okay. So I knew going in that I wouldn’t be getting my preferred happily-ever-after. If the story is compelling, if I fall in love with the characters and believe that they are meant to be, I can handle a bitter-sweet ending.

Take Cold Mountain for instance. I know fellow romantics who hated this film because of the ending. Although, I wanted an HEA with all my heart, when I didn’t get it, I wasn’t angry or let down, just sad for Inman and Ada. I believed in their love. I rooted for them, ached for them. I walked away from the theater mourning the love lost, but filled with a sense of hope. Though not a traditional romance, Cold Mountain is a true love story.

Back to Tristan & Isolde. It started off so well. The director and writer took their time setting up the story, which I liked. It helped me to emotionally connect with the hero, Tristan. To understand his motivation, his beliefs. I was hooked. Tristan (Englishman and adopted son of Lord Marke) was loyal and intelligent. A brave warrior. A scene where he leads a rescue of village women, cemented his role as our ‘hero’.

Then he meets and falls in love with an Irish princess, Isolde. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how their relationship develops. If not, you can read the synopsis here. Through circumstances, Isolde ends up married to Lord Marke (played by Rufus Sewell). This is where the movie fell apart for me.

Tristan, though deeply in love with Isolde, convinces her that she must follow through with this marriage. “We will bear this,” he tells her, “because we must.” His actions, his words, rang true to the character they had set up. This man loved and respected Lord Marke. He put his Lord and their people above his personal desires. A typical heroic deed in the eyes of we romantics. Okay. So, still believable. I watched as a broken hearted Isolde resigned herself to marriage with a man she did not love. Believable. Watched as Lord Marke wooed her with patience and kindness. Believable. Watched as Isolde began to soften toward Lord Marke. Because Tristan had been away for some time and because of how tenderly Marke treated her--also believable.

Tristan witnesses her warming to Lord Marke, and instead of sucking it up and ‘bearing it’, he throws a jealous snit, taunting Isolde with snide comments, forcing her to admit her heart still belongs to him… and the traitorous affair begins. For the rest of the movie, every time the camera was on Tristan, I swear there were tears in his eyes. His actions were no longer selfless, but selfish. Where was the young hero of the first half of the movie? My disappointment wasn’t with the ‘affair’, but with Tristan.

My husband turned to me at one point and said, “I bet I know why you’re not enjoying this movie at this point. You think she should be with Rufus Sewell.”

Ding, ding, ding! “On the nose. You win!” Lord Marke was kind, charming, handsome, a brave warrior and strong leader. Why would any woman prefer sniveling Tristan to charismatic Marke? Why would she prefer a weak boy to a strong man? I didn’t buy it.
In the end, Tristan redeemed himself, but I didn’t care by that point. And by the by, in the end, Lord Marke still came off more hero-like in his actions than Tristan. I’m not saying the filmmaker should have made Lord Marke less appealing. That could have worked to provide great conflict. A similar ploy worked well with the Lancelot, Guinevere, and King Arthur triangle. But that’s just it. Tristan wasn’t conflicted enough. He wasn’t man enough. Hero enough. When he met his end, I didn’t think, “Poor Isolde.” I thought, “If you’re lucky Lord Marke will take you back.”

Long post long, I was disappointed in Tristan & Isolde. I knew I wasn’t going to get my HEA, but I didn’t even get a believable love story. I did not root or ache for the star-crossed lovers. I rooted and ached for Lord Marke. On a good note, the evening was not a total waste. I learned a great deal about storytelling, characterization, and creating a believable tale of love. Plus, I got to ogle Rufus Sewell. *g*

Anyone else see this movie? Thoughts? Comments on what makes or breaks a hero or heroine? Let’s talk.


Taylor said…
Beth, looks like alot of people agree with your review. On T&I has received a 34% fresh rating (Which isn't really that fresh at all)! If I have the time I might have to decide for myself, but thanks for the warning. I heard there's a great new romance movie out in theaters! It's really Oscar-worthy they say! It's the top lead for best picture! I think it's called "Basic Instinct 2"! Yeah, that's it. Now THERE'S a film!
Gabriele C. said…
I haven't seen it and I'm not sure I will (maybe later, on DCD). I can only say that in the Mediaeval written sources, Marke doesn't come off as nice as obviously in the movie. In most versions, he is older, it's a political match and he doesn't care if Isolde loves him. Though he isn't a bad guy, either.

There, now you have made me look up the variants of the legend. I have 4 different manuscripts, and somewhere there's a copy of Bédier's essay and some other stuff about the legend.
Beth Ciotta said…
Hey, Taylor. ;) I'm not saying don't see it. There were many aspects that I liked about the movie. The action sequences, for instance, were very well done. And it looked great overall. Strong acting on almost everyone's part. It's just the star-crossed lovers, or rather Tristan, that I didn't buy. :)

Gabriele, in the movie, Marke was older. She was maybe nineteen? Twenty? And Rufus/Marke looked maybe 40-45. Are you saying he was even older than that in the legend? Funny, a forty-year old man isn't 'older' to me, but I guess he would seem so to a nineteen year old. LOL Also, in the movie, the marraige was for political reasons. But in the movie, he truly fell for her. Hard.
Stacie said…
I haven't seen Tristan & Isolde yet. I was actually planning on renting it this weekend, but didn't get the chance. Although I might not now...

Your comments about a HEA ending remind of Shakespeare In Love (which I just rented again this weekend!). They didn't end up together in the end, but I still LOVE that movie!
Gabriele C. said…
I think it is the usual white-bearded king cliché that makes him come across as old. And in most versions Tristan is Marke's nephew which adds to the father figure-image. Though I admit 40something isn't old. :)

The whole Tristan tradition is such a complicated mess and a lot of manuscripts haven't survived (though we know about their existence because of quotations and translations). I took several courses in Old French literature and have briefly dealt with Tristan but I specialised in a different sort of texts, the chansons de geste. Missing manuscripts are a problem all of these pose, though.

It will take a few days because I have some other things to look up first, but I will check my old notes and copies of essays I have for some interesting tidbits I can post in my blog. In case you're interested.

BTW Does the movie include the Tristan in Brittany and his marriage to the other Isolde (Isolde Whitehand) episode?
Beth Ciotta said…
Stacie, Shakespeare in Love is one of my all time faves! No, they didn't end up together, but you wanted them to, right? ;) As for T&I, you may feel differently than I about the film. I'm closer to Lord Marke's age. You're closer to Tristan's. Would be interesting to know if that makes a difference.

Gabriele, I'm a bit foggy on my British lore. When you say Tristan of Brittany, are you referring to the Tristan of King Arthur fame? If so, A) He also fell in love with an Isolde?? B) No, he wasn't mentioned in the movie.
ElsieHogarth said…
Beth, I have seen Tristan & Isolde. I usually go to the movies as soon as a period piece movie is released since they don't last that long showing. Tristan was as you said selfless and then became selfish, I honestly wanted Isolde to see Marke and value him, especially the way he was wooing her and treating her.
Gabriele C. said…
Tristan is of Arthur fame, at least since the 15th century prose cycle and Malory connected the matière Tristan with the matière Arthur, though the foundation to this development was already laid by Chetien de Troyes' Cligès story.

Several versions of the legend have it that Tristan has to leave for Brittany and there marries one Isolde Whitehand but never consumates the marriage. When her father (or brother) finds out, he gets very angry and charges Tristan to duel. Tristan is severely wounded and sends to Isolde of Ireland to heal him. But she comes too late, or in one version, Isolde Whitehand tells Tristan she refuses to come or something. Geez, I really have to look up those pesky details.
Beth Ciotta said…
Hi, Elsie. Okay. So I wasn't the only one who favored Marke over Tristan. Good to know. ;)

Gabriele, so the Tristan of the movie I watched is the same Tristan of Knights of the Round table fame. Huh. I didn't realize that. Well, no matter the version, I find them all intriguing. What a fascianting time!

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