Isolde her to the studio: Before Romeo and Juliet, there was an inferior story

“Tristan and Isolde”

20th Century Fox

Directed by Kevin Reynolds

Written by Dean Georgaris

Starring: James Franco, Sophia Myles, Rufus Sewell, David O’Hara and Mark Strong

Rated PG-13/135 minutes

Opens Jan. 13, 2006

Two-and-a-half out of four stars

The star-crossed lovers in “Tristan and Isolde” are victims of their medieval times, constricted by duty, politics and the far off invention of the Instant Message. They mourn for what might have been had their circumstances been different.

I mourn as well for what might have been. You see,

Ridley Scott-the director of “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down”-was supposed to direct this same story in the 1970s until he was lured away to do “Alien” (good for him).

Scott’s take on the legend of an English knight and an Irish princess whose love proves deadly for their warring countries would have certainly been more epic and scintillating than the dour romance we get in 2006.

Oh, well.

Scott and his twitchy brother Tony remain as executive producers-meaning they gave money to Kevin Reynolds (“Waterworld”-yippee) to direct this emotionally drab but occasionally thrilling production.

James Franco skulks in the background as Tristan, clenching his fists and biting his lip when Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) takes Isolde (Sophia Myles) as his bride. What seems like days earlier, Tristan and Isolde met in Ireland after his battle-weary body washed up on shore. She nursed him back to health by rubbing sticky ointment all over his well-toned chest. One thing led to another?

It would be simpler if Lord Marke were a wife beater or a tyrant.

Instead, he’s a decent man who treats Isolde well, if without flare. He’s also Tristan’s surrogate father, if things weren’t complicated enough already. All things considered, Tristan and Isolde steal away into the night (13th century lovers can’t “elope” or “run away together”-no, they must “steal away”) for some midnight fun in the forest.

Too bad it’s no fun for us.

Franco and Myles, as stunning as they are, generate very little steam.

The script by Dean Georgaris gives them precious little time together. Yes, that’s how the story goes, but when they are together, there are no grand, romantic sparks between them-at least nothing grand enough to make us believe their love is paramount. Perhaps more drab than the romance is the look of the film.

Blues and browns and overcast skies are predominant-fitting for the tragic love story but dull to look at for two hours.

“Tristan and Isolde” gets some mileage out of the well-staged action scenes, such as a daring rescue mission and a sneaky midnight siege. If only the romance were that dynamic.

Oh, what might have been?

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