If there won’t always be an England, as the cliché has it, at least there will always be cinematic fables about the country now known as the United Kingdom. The tales of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the Blitz today seem as American as Billy the Kid, having been absorbed by Hollywood long before mainstream British movie-making was colonized by Los Angeles’ major studios. To judge by the latest examples of Anglo-American historical fabulism, Tristan & Isolde and Mrs. Henderson Presents, one other old homily needs only a slight update: These accounts of illicit desire and risqué musicales gently request, “Very little sex, please—we’re British.”
An oft-told (and oft-altered) ballad of tragic infatuation, the legend of Tristan and Isolde may have some basis in fact; there are small clues that the tale’s three central characters actually existed in sixth-century Cornwall. Tristan & Isolde hews to the likely geography, but it’s deliberately fuzzy on other details. Texas-born director Kevin Reynolds, who made the similarly imprecise Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and writer Dean Georgaris, who scripted the second Tomb Raider flick, make their various Celts and Teutons all speak English. And they took the spellings of the major characters’ names from Wagner’s 1865 opera, which is why the title isn’t Tristan & Iseult. As for the young-hunks-in-love aspect of the story, it emulates Titanic as much as Braveheart.
The full-lipped lovers are James Franco as Tristan, whose parents were killed by brutal Irish raiders, and Sophia Myles as Isolde, the daughter of King Donnchadh (David O’Hara), the very man who commands those buccaneers. Their first meeting is a bit Blue Lagoon, except that the island they find themselves on is Ireland and they’re not entirely alone: Isolde is accompanied by her handmaid. Having been poisoned by Irish lout Morholt (Graham Mullins), who applies toxin to his sword blade before battle, Tristan was thought dead by his fellow Britons and set adrift for a sea burial. After landing on the other side of the Celtic Sea, he’s discovered by Isolde, an expert in “elixirs” and a fledgling Christian with an apparently prescient taste for the love-and-death verse of 17th-century poet John Donne. Deciding that the castaway hunk needs warmth, Isolde strips off her clothing and cuddles him, commanding her maid to do the same, until Tristan finally wakes to see Isolde’s beautiful, out-of-focus face. This therapeutic ménage à trois is the apex of Tristan & Isolde’s body heat.
Because she’s been betrothed by her father to Morholt, Isolde never tells Tristan her true name, and she insists that he return alone to Britain (which the film anachronistically terms “England”). He reluctantly does but soon returns, invited with other British knights to a tournament that Donnchadh hopes will divide them. The trophy is the king’s daughter, freed from her previous engagement by Morholt’s death (at the hands of Tristan, of course). The veiled prize is won in the name of Cornwall’s Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) by his loyal ward, Tristan, who doesn’t know that he’s just committed his true love to marry someone else. Isolde is ferried to Cornwall and married in a ceremony that recalls the torch-lit pomp of First Knight, a movie based on the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, another version of the Tristan and Iseult legend. Isolde finds Marke to be a kind husband but pines for Tristan. The two young pretties begin a perilous affair—further complicated by Donnchadh’s latest invasion, which cues the third of the movie’s largely interchangeable battle scenes.
In the earliest known versions of the story, Tristan and Isolde’s adulterous lust was explained by the fact that they drank a love potion. This movie understandably skips the magic, but it doesn’t propose much other motivation in its place. The romance is simply a matter of narrative necessity, and it’s carefully balanced against the intrigue and carnage required to keep Tristan & Isolde from being classified as a chick flick. Better, however, that the film had been just that. With their fast pans and quick cuts, Reynolds’ action sequences are facsimiles of the ones in a half-dozen recent sword-and-bow pictures, including the latest by Tristan & Isolde executive producer Ridley Scott, Kingdom of Heaven.
The violence is more convincing than the eroticism, at least, but both are pallid. “English” pride aside, perhaps it’s time to admit that today’s masters of cinematic pageantry and passion all speak Chinese. Tristan, Iseult, and the like can all rest in peace while Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai compose our new myths.
Although Mrs. Henderson Presents transpires mostly during World War II, its principal battles are fought not in the skies above London, but in its theater district. Freshly widowed and quickly bored, a society matron decides to buy a West End vaudeville theater and, when it fails to draw crowds, to introduce a novel attraction: female nudity, à la Parisian cabarets. The authorities object but ultimately sanction the audacious idea on the condition that the naked women pose in static tableaux, as motionless as any inanimate prop. This, alas, is a metaphor for the entire film: Though not without moments of BBC-sitcom appeal, the undertaking is essentially lifeless.
Tristan & Isolde’s reticence about nudity might suggest otherwise, but undraped British showgirls posing in solemn parodies of old-master paintings are not so shocking these days as they might have been in 1940. And the perverse fact that some Britons were having great fun during the Blitz is a poorly kept secret, thanks not only to John Boorman’s Hope and Glory but also to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That leaves Mrs. Henderson Presents with only one flash of titillation: Dame Judi Dench’s gamely uttering the word “pussy.” As Laura Henderson, Dench is supposed to be dotty, snobby, and detached from the real world. But she has a (sort of) hidden tragedy that (kind of) deepens her overmoneyed superficiality, as well as a gift for uttering the occasional air-clearing vulgarity. Both serve her well when battling official censor Lord Cromer, although in these exchanges Mrs. H’s principal advantage is that she’s played by Dench and her antagonist by the hopelessly out-of-his-league Christopher Guest.
“Inspired by true events” but rendered utterly artificial by director Stephen Frears and scripter Martin Sherman, Mrs. Henderson Presents opens with self-consciously old-fashioned animated credits. It then cuts to the 1937 funeral of Mr. Henderson, an important sort of fellow who spent many of his years in British-ruled India. There, his widow explains, “there was always someone to look down on.” Thus her need to find new people to command, beginning with theatrical impresario Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins in a swept-back gray wig). Van Damm is “foreign”—that is, Dutch—“and Jewish,” Mrs. Henderson remarks superciliously, and her lighthearted disapproval of these attributes is supposed to be a matter of continuing fun. Even more unconvincingly, it’s proposed as a source of pathos when German troops seize Holland and begin arresting Van Damm’s relatives.
All of the filmmakers’ efforts to ground this trifle in the horrors of World War II prove as flat as the rooftop nightscapes that depict London under bombardment. Frears, who’s made the city itself the subject of such pictures as Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Dirty Pretty Things, here settles for—or perhaps intends—a London that’s basically a theatrical backdrop. The script, meanwhile, features predictable backstage-dramedy business, from the serendipitous assembling of the cast to recurrent sniping between backer (Henderson) and director (Van Damm). At one point, the latter bars the former from the theater, leaving her to slip in sheepishly, like a child working her way step by step downstairs to a grown-ups’ party.
With misplaced tenderness toward young soldiers, Mrs. Henderson stage-manages a romance between a seemingly earnest young recruit and the company’s leading nudie (Kelly Reilly). This has an outcome that’s meant to be tragic but plays as merely convenient. In that regard, the subplot is pretty much like the rest of Mrs. Henderson Presents, a movie that makes both death and pussy seem matters of little consequence.CP