''Tristan & Isolde" comes with a crisp reminder from its studio's marketing department: ''Before Romeo & Juliet, there was. . . ." True, but why so defensive? It's not as if the movie is a dreary battle epic disguised as a romantic tragedy. And it's not as if it has to appeal to 15-year-old girls expecting a piece of cinematic candy starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. Oh, wait -- it does. ''Tristan & Isolde" has the duty of telling an ancient, less famous feel-bad love story, the one Shakespeare didn't write and that Baz Luhrmann didn't direct.
''Tristan & Isolde" harks back to Celtic myth and Arthurian times, where a disunited England has shaken off the ill effects of Rome's occupation and is at war with the marauding Irish. The land is ruled by a bunch of squabbling factions whose leaders skulk and grouse about signing an accord meant to redirect everybody's attention toward the Irish and their destructive King Donnachadh (David Patrick O'Hara).
At this point you must be wondering what I was wondering for the first 30 minutes of ''Tristan & Isolde": Where's the love? It's out there somewhere. But first we must watch young Tristan lose his father during a battle. In that skirmish the boy's life is saved by Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell), who loses a hand in the process but gains a son. Tristan grows up and, now played by James Franco, has become Marke's fiercest warrior. Left for dead in battle, Tristan is put on a floating casket that drifts to Ireland, where it washes up and is discovered by Isolde (Sophia Myles), who was in the process of fleeing an arranged marriage.
Instead, she hides Tristan in a cave and brings him back to health, first by taking off all her clothes, ordering her dour helpmeet (Bronagh Gallagher) to do the same, and using their body heat to keep him from freezing. Isolde is a fine nurse and lover, but she neglects to tell the young Englishman that she's also King Donnachadh's little girl.
The poor guy doesn't figure it all out until he's back in England, fighting in a tournament. Tristan wins, and the prize is a bride for Lord Marke from the Irish king: Isolde! Marke is thrilled, Tristan is woebegone, and the movie turns mildly interesting as boy and girl carry on their affair. The romance, however, is secondary to the political back stabbing that Dean Georgaris concocts in his script. Sure, one sort of begets the other, and the fate of two nations hinges on the nondisclosure of the stolen kisses and secret trysts. But, boy, could I have not cared less.
''Tristan & Isolde" was directed by Kevin Reynolds, who made the Kevin Costner ''Robin Hood" and, more notoriously, Costner's ''Waterworld." As was the case with those movies, he's clearly more comfortable leading actors into battle than coaxing them to emote. Franco can be exhilarating in movies -- tremulous, unhinged, a little wild. Here his jaw never stops quivering and his eyes stay welled up, advertising a breakdown that never comes. Not that Myles has a presence a man would fall apart over. She's too professional to drive anybody crazy.
Other vibrant versions of this tale, including a lot of 12th-century poetry, suggest it didn't have to be this way. And according to the film's production notes, ''Tristan & Isolde" has long been a dream project for Tony and Ridley Scott, two of the movie's producers. Their films tell the modern history of the popcorn flick, from ''Alien" and ''Top Gun" to ''Gladiator" and ''Domino." So why didn't one of them direct ''Tristan & Isolde"? It needs something distinctly Scott-ish, like a whiff of trash or a scoop of crazy.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.