Taken with a grain of salt, "Tristan and Isolde" is an appealing medieval mishmash.
The period-piece soap opera "Tristan and Isolde" can be enjoyed, but you must be in a forgiving frame of mind. The opening titles, which ask us to imagine a legendary Dark Ages United Kingdom cowering before a savage Irish warrior-king, put viewers on alert that a working sense of humor will be essential for what lies ahead.
The story is based on the Tristan legend as remodeled by Richard Wagner for his opera and further rejiggered to include as much swashbuckling, throne-room scheming and romantic swooning as two hours can accommodate.
Orphaned by Irish raiders, Tristan was raised by Lord Marke of Cornwall, chieftain of one of England's disunited tribes. Now a fearless warrior, he leads a counterattack on the pillaging Irish, is wounded by a poisoned sword and falls into a deathlike coma. His body is pushed out to sea on a Viking-style funeral boat amid flame and smoke.
As fate and contrived screenwriting would have it, the boat fails to ignite and drifts from Cornwall straight to Ireland. Isolde, daughter of a warlike king, discovers the heroic cargo and revives Tristan with life-giving warmth by stripping off her gown and snuggling him.
Tristan rows his way back to England, his heart heavy with love for his rescuer. They are reunited when the scheming Irish king offers his daughter's hand in a tournament where the English leaders battle. Tristan fights as Marke's champion, unaware that the prize is his love. When she becomes Marke's bride, Tristan and Isolde begin a clandestine affair with tragic consequences for themselves and England.
Over-the-top romance notwithstanding, "Tristan and Isolde" is a watchable hoot, with skirmishes and swordplay erupting whenever the story drags.
Brooding James Franco ("Spider-Man") and fetching Sophia Myles are a handsome couple in the title roles, though they are given little to express beyond frustrated desire. Rufus Sewell, usually cast as a scoundrel, demonstrates more range as Lord Marke, a kind, just man deceived by the two people he loves most. Director Kevin Reynolds ("The Count of Monte Cristo") wrings maximum value out of photogenic locations and frames his battle scenes to make dozens of extras feel like hundreds. His efforts are the tastiest element in this serving of Cornish corn.
Tristan And Isolde
**½ out of four stars
Rating: PG-12 for intense battle scenes and some sexuality.