I saw this film with The Wife last weekend. I was a bit apprehensive about it, owing to the largely negative reviews it has received, but Ebert and a few other critics I like recommended it, and I was in the mood for a "chick-flick for the LOTR set", so there we were.
And now I'm wondering if the negative critics saw the same movie I did. I loved it.
Now, this isn't a great movie, by any means; if you approach this film intending to judge how well it tells the ancient story of Tristan and Isolde with Wagner's titanic opera Tristan und Isolde as your benchmark, well, let me save you the time. It's just a basic, good old fashioned medieval tragic romance with characters locked into their required actions by their station but also unable to resist the passions that should be beneath them.
Most of the reviews I've read pan the film's acting, but I couldn't find a bad performance here. The mood tends to be fairly subdued, but never boring, and I for one had no difficulty at all believing that Tristan was in love with Isolde and she with him, or that King Mark was a good man caught in the middle of a terrible triangle, and so on.
The film keeps a fairly tight and intimate focus. Despite lots of court intrigue, the "courts" tend to be very small affairs, and locations named in the film as "castles" look more like tiny villages clustered around small keeps. This tight focus keeps the relatively small cast front and center, with the result that the film's intrigues are complex and yet never hard to follow. Even better is the fact that the film's characters all act in ways that are logical to them, with no one just being evil for the sake of being evil. Unintended betrayals occur because they can't be stopped; intended betrayals backfire horribly; characters find themselves in bad situations and strive to get out of them, only to find things getting worse despite their best efforts.
I found the film's overall look very fine indeed, as lush locations are photographed in a washed-out fashion to enhance the cold atmosphere of post-Roman Britain, and I even liked the score by Anne Dudley, which utilizes an intimate approach that eschews the large brassy fanfares and sweeping themes of typical epic fare for a more subdued tone, often utilizing solo violins and winds, and also underplaying the Celtic sounds one might otherwise expect from a film with this subject matter. Dudley's score takes an approach that is closer to Carter Burwell's effort on Rob Roy than, say, James Horner's approach to scoring Braveheart, and it's nowhere near the kind of epic score Howard Shore wrote for The Lord of the Rings.
In the case of Tristan and Isolde, I am truly mystified by the critical response, and I wonder if many critics aren't simply predisposed against this kind of movie. It is, as I said above, a chick-flick for the LOTR set, but I like the occasional chick-flick and I'm certainly a member of the LOTR set, so I'm good.