"How am I blest in thus discovering thee!"

Film Watching the sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre film Tristan and Isolde today (isn't Sophia Myles great?), I was finally able to see the legendary quoting of John Donne's poem The Good-Morrow in situ. Just like every reviewer of the animated film Barnyard picked up on the fact that the male cows with udders, it was the one element of this to be highlighted. A rather detailed piece from Creative Screenwriting gets to the nub of most of their problems:
"This will sound like nitpicking, but Isolde reads John Donne poetry to Tristan while he's convalescing -- and John Donne wasn't even born until 1572. Not only that, she reads it from a little printed book that she carries -- not likely until much later in history. Also, characters treat paper and parchment like everyday items. I'm pretty sure that's not right. I could swear that I heard one character greet another with "Hello," a 20th century word if ever there was one."
Within the film itself, it's rather a lovely romantic moment, closing out the film in a upbeat way (considering). The problem with these criticisms is that clearly the filmmakers are not even attempting historical accuracy - it's a romantic fantasy from the same tradition as Arthurian legend -- and it's somewhat bizarre that film, particularly in modern times, is hauled over the coals and singled out negatively for its anachronisms when other art forms from painting through to playwriting have been doing this kind of thing for centuries.

Over Christmas, BBC Two broadcast an excellent short series of documentaries about masterpieces connected with the Nativity, including Jan van Eyck's The Annunciation. In this work, Van Eyck portrays one of the holiest events in the Christian church within a vaguely contemporary setting, with stylized costumes. Repeatedly in Shakespeare's rendering of Julius Caesar characters refer to clocks and chiming; Cassius says at one moment: "The clock hath stricken three" - mechanical chiming clocks weren't around in Roman Britain.

Perhaps I'm more forgiving than most about these things, but for me the importance in any film is that it sets up and adheres to its own internal reality. The confusion here possibly lies in the fact that the opening cards place the film in the fifth century, but that isn't any different to the way that literature has included dates to create a sheen of historical reality before fictionalising everything - see everyone from Milton to Dumas. Tristan and Isolde is based on myth rather than historical truth, so when Creative Screenwriting points out that the characters don't talk as they would have in the fifth century, they're missing the point.

It's part of a kind of postmodernism that pervades the whole work, trying to show that this is a romance for all time. The narrative mixes elements from throughout the entire history of the original myth and tosses in (as the ad campaign indicates) bits of Romeo and Juliet. Instead of Middle English which would have needed to be subtitled Apocalypto-style, it's using a heightened but still comprehensible language that blends vocabulary from throughout the centuries (why not 'Hello'? I'd rather have that than 'Good day' or 'Greetings' a hundred times). Admittedly this doesn't always work ('I'm soon with the worms...' etc) but it is used coherently throughout the film. This blending stretches to the design and costumes which have everything from Normanism to the kind of thing you might find in the illustrations of a fairytale storybook or a pre-Raphaelite paintings.

With all of this in mind, John Donne's poetry doesn't feel wrong at all; his words were the most romantic and this side of the Shakespeare, and have no doubt been carefully chosen because it's just unfamiliar enough not to pop out in the same way that the bard's might and give the feelings shared by the lovers an intensity and integrity. What's to say that in this version of reality people aren't using some version of a book? And how great is it too that the filmmakers sought to use a great bit of literature rather than cooking something up themselves which means that people who might not necessarily have picked up a copy of Donne's work otherwise will be doing so. I'd love to know what a new reader thinks of The Flea or To His Mistress Going To Bed (or the poem that was left out of the edition I read at school).

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