The 2006 movie Tristan + Isolde (affiliate link), starring James Franco as Tristan and Rufus Sewell as Lord Marke includes every single context — loss, greed, the insatiable thirst for world domination, jealousy, sibling rivalry, bravery, loyalty, love, and betrayal — humankind has grappled with since the first human was molded from dust and given the breath of life.
For me, this is enough to make it a perfect film, but this is not where its perfection lies. No, its true perfection, ultimately, lies in these essential questions it puts to us:
Can right be wrong? Can wrong be right?
And the dignified example it provides us of how it looks when life destines good, honorable people no other choice but to do “wrong.”
Tristan + Isolde is a love story — four love stories if you’re counting: (1) the love of a surrogate father for his surrogate son; (2) the love of the surrogate son for his surrogate father; and, (3) and (4) tragically, the undevised love of these two men for the same woman.
Tristan is the beloved surrogate son of Lord Marke. Both have sustained great emotional losses that have forged a strong bond between them. They are clearly devoted to each other. (Watch the movie!)
Because life is often serpentine, a series of events are set in motion that will set the stage that inevitably dooms Tristan to “betraying” Lord Marke.
Emotional orgasm #1: And when the “betrayal” is revealed and Lord Marke demands an explanation from Tristan, Tristan does not offer a single word in his own defensive. It is clear that he his heart is crippled by his act of “betrayal.”
Even though Tristan has a reasonable explanation, he is unable to heap insult on top of his “betrayal.” (Watch the movie!)
Lord Marke still consumed with heartbreaking disbelief and disappointment buried under anger confronts Isolde, who could have loved him if Tristan had not come first. It is she who reveals the truth.
Emotional orgasm #2: And by his barely audible, sharp inhale and how instantly understanding occupies his eyes, you know that his heart empathizes, completely. (Watch the movie!)
Lord Marke’s love for both Tristan and Isolde and a certain wisdom allows him to recognize that in this rare instance the dagger of “betrayal” was not Tristan’s, but circumstance. And he wisely grants the young lovers their freedom…
But Lord Marke is fighting against an evil that would destroy the possibility of world peace and trample humanity into the ground; and the brave and honorable Tristan knows that no matter how much he loves Isolde he cannot sail off into the night and allow their love to bring down a kingdom.
Emotional orgasm #3: So Tristan sends Isolde off and he returns. And when he returns and everyone else questions whose side he is on, Lord Marke does not have even a mustard seed of hesitation before he announces absolutely, “No, he is with us.” (Watch the movie!)
I don’t know if life is greater than death, but love was more than either.
I would love to tell you that life and love conquered death, but this is not that story. Lying mortally wounded by the side of the river, Tristan dies with the two people he loved the most at his side…
So I ask again: Can right be wrong? Can wrong be right? Are there rare instances when it is neither or either?