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Tristan (1999)
Writer and director: Michael J. Murphy

review by Paul Higson

In Tristan director Micheal J Murphy turns his attention to this Cornish legend one more time having previously filmed it in 1970 as Tristan and Iseult and secondly in 1986 as Legend Of A Hero, delivering it as he principally sees it, a tragic Celtic romantic adventure. I grew up on Arthur And The Britons and Robin Of Sherwood that were rousing entertainment then, but one too many Italian peplums later and X number of Hollywood sword and sorcery happy endings, and you wish never to see another one again. The adult element was essential to many Italian films, bloodier fights and beautiful naked flesh. This too entered into the American side of the genre, with films like The Beastmaster, The Archer And The Sorceress, The Sword And The Sorcerer, The Silent Flute, Barbarian Queen and Deathstalker, while in the UK we offered up Hawk The Slayer, Excalibur, Sword Of The Valiant and Krull. Murphy might not be too happy to have Tristan attached to this group as, though it is drawn from legend and Swinburne's romantic poem Tristram Of Lyonesse, he has decisively opposed any element of magic, as if, having become so personally involved with it's filmic translation, he hopes to convince himself and others of a factual basis to the legend, as slim as such might be. This prosecution of the supernatural is exhibited in that but two of the characters employ sorcery or magical potions, only to for it to be clearly debunked within the story. In the first instance it is Iseault (Kate Steavenson-Payne), who having imbued Tristan (Scott Wright) with a love potion decries it then as no more than a common rich wine and that no magic serum be needed for she and he to fall in love. In the ranks of villainy it is their young soothsayer, Erina (Kate Faulkner), whose skills are put into question when a spell of indestructibility is quickly disapproved in the most fatal of evidence. This produces an interesting but awkward note in that there is in it an attempt to ground a legend in reality. There is an earthiness in the film but that comes largely from the 16mm film complementing the design rather than any possible actuality in the subject. The removal of superstition is an interesting take and puts this drama closer to Arthur And The Britons and The Bruce, which is presumably what Murphy aimed for.
Tristan - supporting cast
The King of Cornwall (James Reynaud) instructs his challenger, Tristan, to sail to Ireland, fight their king's challenger and return with the Princess Iseault (Steavenson-Payne), her hand to be delivered into that of the king for marriage. On the return journey a storm rises up and Iseault is ditched into the water. Tristan follows, rescuing her, taking her to shore. Come the end of their journey, he has rescued her again, slaying a pair of murderous robbers and a kiss has kindled the fires in them. The situation could have been confessed to, but that would curtail a legend, so the wedding goes ahead and, get this, on the honeymoon night the new Queen of Cornwall drugs the King during his celebratory tipples and sneaks her virginity over to Tristan, while her handmaiden, Branwane (Beth Meller), despite a more fulsome girth, substitutes herself in the King's bed.
   This stunt is replayed over and again until the 'treasonous' acts become of obvious notice to the power hungry court louse, Andret (Nicholas Bowditch). He and his band of supporters, including the young, blonde soothsayer, plot to expose and depose, and it is on the night that Tristan and Iseault mean to end the lie and leave that this comes to pass. The ignominy! Tristan is banished and Iseault must contend with court life and learn to love his royal highness. His failure to come down harder on the young hero, chiefly because Tristan is in fact the King of Cornwall's bastard son, a fact that the King had hoped shortly to bring to light, is only fuel to Andret's scheming, evidence of an appalling weakness in the ruler. Andret's attempt to kill Tristan results only in Andret's injury and banishment too, his lackeys volunteering to go with him.
   It is in Brittany that the story is taken up afresh and Andret is creeping around the throne of the King of that dominion, ogling the Princess, also going by the name of Yseault, and scoffing the Crown Prince, Ghardine (Murray Hall), who does not make much of king's champion, boy that he is. It is Tristan's turn to join into a loveless marriage, with Princess Yseault of Brittany, though no man could watch and believe Tristan unable to respond to actress Rachel Paris' charms, no man is that romantically ensconced.
   There are a few dark twists, in line with unfair legends, Andret's return, the 'seduction' of Yseault of Brittany in front of her father's corpse and a cruel ending that a Hollywood test audience would have had hastily rewritten to the usual ineffectuality. It is a refreshing downer.
Princess Iseault
This is an accomplishment. For a 100-minute film about a muscle-built mutt there is no flagging. To be fair, all of the performances are on an even par, no Baftas, but no bad acting either. There are a few problems at the opening of the film. The dubbing is out to such a degree that it threatens to be a spoiling constant, but you attune to it. Like Moonchild, there is a shaky start that levels out, the suggestion of a bucking horse out of the stocks but shortly after coolly tamed. The cheeky cheap tricks like the fake 'at sea' sequences attain a retrospectively bemusing acceptability.
   The first fight scene in the film between Tristan and the King of Ireland's champion is jumped into without any establishing shots. For all we know it could be a stray challenger out in the middle of nowhere, and throughout there are no corresponding shots of the witnesses to the combat or the village. It is inter-cut with shots of the principle Yseault watching the fight from her window or door, it is uncertain which, but all we feel is that this is a deep interior, clearly a studio set and completely mismatched with natural exteriors. As stated, this early shoddiness is shaken off a little to a degree more amenable. The budget is low, and for three kingdoms and one invasion the cast is small, but Murphy keeps us up close with his cast, holds dear the detailed legend and has us informed at every stage of the actions, reasons and emotions of all of the characters. Sensibly, Murphy commissions details. A mosaic is quite splendid, you originally guess it to be a stolen shot at a heritage site, only for Murphy to return to it and lay his naked lovers across it raising doubts as to the authenticity. The National Trust was involved, but even they wouldn't have risked that, the credits reveal it to be the work of Rachel Bone. Some of the fibreglass portions of set don't look quite right but neither do they look like fibreglass either, though the standard of the locations and artefacts borrowed and constructed is pretty good throughout.
   The fight sequences have also come along since Moonchild, nothing remarkable, but flawless all the same. Murphy has described this as a romantic flick, one for the women, but Tristan isn't the only one out of costume promoting his gym regime. If the two Princesses doffing their clothes don't keep the male audience tuned then nothing will. Kate Steavensen-Payne is beautiful if skeletal, and has gone on to huge budgeted costume drama since, most notably Attila. Rachel Paris gives a more impassioned performance and possesses the greater presence; she is a real draw. Scott Wright could be nauseating but is a bearable jock, possibly because his failure to respond to Yseault of Brittany makes him less of a man than the rest of us. I will mention Robert Bartlett who plays Cuvenal, Tristan's faithful manservant simply because I have not before now and he is fine support, while Murphy film regular James Reynard is a solid presence as the King of Cornwall. Cornwall and Wales provide terrific backdrops and add a natural scope in hills, sea and cliff-paths. It won't appeal to everyone and judging a DVD by its mock-up cover I had expected to hate it. I could not have been more surprised to find it as positively diverting as it was.
Tristan and Iseault Scott Wright and Kate Steavenson-Payne as Tristan and Iseault.



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L - R: Nicholas Bowditch,
Rachel Paris (back to
camera), Kate Faulkner,
Christopher Jupp, and
Murray Hall.












































Kate Steavenson-Payne
in portrait as Iseault.

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