Tristan & Isolde

Purists are already complaining about how the ancient legend of Tristan and Isolde has been mutilated for its new screen adaptation, and of course by “purists” I mean “nerds.” I wasn’t aware this ancient legend existed until the film’s trailer informed me that “before ‘Romeo & Juliet’ there was ‘Tristan & Isolde.'” (Take THAT, Shakespeare! You suck!!)

Still, those nerds have a point. Many elements of the story, set in the Dark Ages in England, have been removed to make it more relatable to a modern audience. The star-crossed lovers don’t fall for each other because of a love potion anymore, for example; now it’s for the regular old-fashioned reasons, i.e., his angular, brooding face and her pert bosoms. But even among the original elements that remain, much of the drama has been sucked out of them by a tired screenplay and underachieving direction.

It is a time of war and discontent in stinky olde England. Not only are the various tribes — your Anglos, your Saxons, your Jutes, etc. — at odds with each other, but those darn Irish keep sailing over to burn down villages and take Britons back as slaves. (Why they think pasty, weak-kneed Brits would be good workers, I don’t know. Don’t they see Italy just across the way?)

Tristan (James Franco) is a British youth and an excellent military strategist. Orphaned as a child, he has grown up under the care of Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), the man who would be king if the bickering tribes could ever agree on a unification plan. And Tristan would be his No. 2.

Alas, Tristan is killed in battle and, according to custom, his body is put on a boat and sent floating away. But whoops! One, he’s not dead; two, he lands on the Irish coast, where the beautiful Isolde (Sophia Myles), daughter of King Donnchadh (David O’Hara), secretly nurses him back to health and falls in love with him.

(A side note: Do you suppose maybe the reason the Irish hate the English so much is that the English are always sending their corpses to them on boats? I mean, you set a body adrift in the Irish Sea, where do you think it’s going to wind up? Singapore?)

Anyway, Tristan and Isolde can’t be together, and they realize it, as demonstrated by very obvious dialogue such as, “We both know this can’t be. We’ve known it from the start.” (Yawn.) Tristan heads back to England and they vow never to see each other again. But then! Through a very odd bit of strategy by her father, Isolde winds up married to a prominent Briton, and she and Tristan are once again living in proximity to one another. They don’t have Motel 6, but they sure have old stone dugouts and abandoned cellars.

Director Kevin Reynolds has made period pieces before, notably “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” (and, less notably, “Waterworld”), but I don’t recall the past being as murky and overcast as this one. He’s directed plenty of fight sequences, too, yet all the action in “Tristan & Isolde” is shot mostly in rapidly cut close-ups, making it chaotic and confusing (not to mention cheap, since you don’t actually have to teach any actors how to sword-fight).

More damaging, though, is the general WB-ification of the story, in a screenplay by Dean Georgaris (“Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”). The pretty young leads, scrubbed fresh and clean in a most anachronistic fashion, exhibit only teen-drama emotions, nothing approaching the real depth hinted at by the story’s classic themes. Sophia Myles is just bland, and James Franco’s one facial expression is that of someone whose feelings have just been hurt.

There are serious ideas at work here. Greed, jealousy, love, betrayal — you can make a powerful film out of those raw materials. But in these hands, it’s as shallow and glossed-over as Franco’s English accent.

C (2 hrs., 5 min.; PG-13, some mild sexuality, a fair amount of battle violence.)