I’m not going to sugar coat it, folks: the 1981 film Lovespell, starring Richard Burton and Kate Mulgrew, is awful.
I mean, really, really, REALLY awful.
Why did I choose it for the blogathon, you may ask?
Richard Burton rises above the material and is quite good in it.
Co-star Kate Mulgrew wrote about the experience of working with Burton in her (wonderful and highly recommended) memoir, Born with Teeth.
“Richard Burton was kind, complex, and deeply shy. His talent was remarkable, and in our scenes together I often found myself captivated by his tenderness, his perfect control, and his ability to hit grace notes I didn’t notice existed in the text.”
Quite a tribute, especially when you realize she wrote it many years after his death, and was not looking to score points of any kind.
She is also very candid about his alcohol consumption, which made him volatile. He took a liking to Mulgrew (of a paternalistic kind) and called her “Katarina” out of affection. During one drunken episode, he tried to convince her to leave the business. On her birthday, he gifted her with earrings and a mink coat. (Mulgrew’s mother, who chaperoned her during the shoot, thought the mink was inappropriate and insisted she return it. She never did.)
If any of this sounds slightly creepy, his wife at the time, Susan, was present for all of this.
O.K., we’ve put this off as long as possible. On to the movie itself:
Lovespell is the legend of Tristan and Isolt, that well-worn story about an old king who stupidly sends his handsome nephew to pick up his young fiancée and bring her to him via a sea voyage.
King Mark of Cornwall (Burton) encounters the feisty and young Isolt (Mulgrew) on his way to meet her father, the nobleman Gormond of Ireland (Cyril Cusak). Mark and Isolt become friends. After he returns to Cornwall, he entrusts his nephew Tristan (Nicholas Clay) with an offer of marriage to Isolt. Tristan is also suffering from a festering wound and Mark wants Isolt, a gifted healer, to attend to him.
Tristan and Isolt fall madly in love. Before leaving for Cornwall, Isolt’s maid Bronwyn (Geraldine Fitzgerald) gives her a love potion and directs her to share it with King Mark, thus saving herself from the disgrace of an ill-advised love affair with Tristan.
On the voyage to Cornwall they become lovers. In Cornwall, instead of sharing the potion with Mark, she shares it with Tristan. She marries Mark but cannot stay away from Tristan. When they are discovered, Mark threatens to execute Tristan. He and Isolt escape but are captured. Mark banishes Tristan. Bereft of her lover, Isolt becomes deathly ill. In Brittany, Tristan is injured again. He sends a priest to Isolt, begging to be allowed to return so she can heal him. Mark, afraid Isolt will die unless he agrees to Tristan’s return, leaves to fetch him. When Tristan says he and Isolt will love each other forever, Mark raises black sails on the vessel, a signal to Isolt that Tristan is dead. When she sees it, she falls off a cliff. Tristan makes it to the shore and crawls to her just before they die together.
Like I said, it’s a pretty well-worn story so it doesn’t feel like I’m spoiling anything by giving away the ending.
Kate Mulgrew had spent three years on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. One of the writers/producers, Claire Labine, was a great friend of hers. She wrote the screenplay especially for Mulgrew after she left the show. Labine convinced Burton to do the film by tracking him down in Puerto Vallarta and—asking him to do it. As you can see, she also convinced Cyril Cusack and Geraldine Fitzgerald to participate. I doubt any actually read the script before saying yes. (By the way, I don’t mean to put down soap opera writers at all—Ryan’s Hope was an exceptional show back in the day, but obviously Labine was better at small intimate stories than epic drama.)
The direction, by Tom Donovan, a well-respected television director from the Golden Age of Television, is dreadful. Maybe he had little experience shooting on location. Mulgrew should have shot the costume designer, who made her look frumpy and much older than 20 years old.
Then there’s the casting of Burton and Clay as Mark and Tristan. Why, why, WHY do they do this EVERY time there’s a love triangle in a movie with an older man and a much younger couple? Burton is way more charismatic and interesting than Clay, who is downright insipid.
(This seems to happen EVERY time Hollywood takes a bash at the Tristan and Isolt story. A more recent version cast Rufus Sewell and James Franco, respectively. Oh, no, the poor heroine, forced to marry Rufus Sewell, what a horror—give me a break! It never seems to occur to anyone to cast someone decrepit and gouty, which was more likely how it was back then.)
Everything about the film is amateurish, including a film score that sounds like the temporary one movies have when they are shown to theater exhibitors before the studio finishes the final cut.
As I said before, Burton rises high above the material. In fact, I’ve often found him a bit on the hammy side in some of his roles. Here he masterfully underplays the part.
How I wish the material had been worthy of his performance, because in that case, I’ve no doubt it would be well known today.