Review: Silk

European smuggler of silkworm eggs is torn between his wife and an Asian beauty. Plushly mounted but stultifying adaptation of Alessandro Baricco’s best seller.

By writing a period romance that was simultaneously chaste and erotic, intellectual and melodramatic, best-selling author Alessandro Baricco’s 1997 novel Silk targeted a more upscale audience than typical bodice-ripper readers. Director François Girard is after that same crowd, one that appreciates a close attention to historical detail, a sweetly melancholic score from a world-class composer, and the sort of lush, exotic landscapes found on greeting cards and jigsaw puzzles. His adaptation of Silk, co-written with Michael Golding, offers a tasteful, sedate story with more sighing than heaving, more averted glances than clinching, more pregnant pauses than confessions of love. It’s a film that manages to remove just about everything that makes soap operas entertaining.

Narrated in flashback by the somnolent Michael Pitt, the plot follows two decades’ worth of silkworm smuggling and illicit lovemaking in nineteenth-century Europe and Asia. Pitt plays Hervé Joncour, a sullen, uncommunicative soldier who becomes an equally sullen traveler to Japan. There he is befriended by Hara Jubei (Koji Yakusho), a warlord whose Chinese concubine becomes Joncour’s object of desire. Known only as “The Girl” (Sei Ashina), she wins Joncour’s undying devotion when she slips him a love letter after a hot-tub encounter.

Waiting patiently back home is Joncour’s wife Hélène (Keira Knightley), a schoolteacher who transfers her energies to building a garden when she learns she is unable to bear children. The moody Joncour disregards advice from his boss Baldabiou (Alfred Molina) to return to war-torn Japan twice more, endangering himself and his marriage to search for what he thinks is happiness. Further advice from Madame Blanche (Miki Nakatani), a Japanese prostitute ensconced in a Lyons brothel, leads to a tragic twist that causes Joncour to question his entire life.

Girard directs Silk with the same ponderous intensity he brought to his last film, The Red Violin. Pacing ranges from stately to inert, with Molina providing the only true jolts of energy. (He also pulls off four awe-inspiring billiard shots.) Who knows what Knightley was thinking when she agreed to play a spurned wife who’s both barren and consumptive; to her credit, Hélène remains uncannily photogenic even on her deathbed. Pitt has become the go-to guy for high-toned trash, but his appeal here is as shaky as his technique. Pallid and emotionless, the actor helps reduce Silk to the level of a Harlequin Romance. To be fair, that may be all these morose, self-absorbed characters deserve.

Cast: Michael Pitt, Keira Knightley, Koji Yakusho, Alfred Molina, Miki Nakatani, Mark Rendall, Sei Ashina, Kenneth Welsh, Jun Kunimura, Callum Keith Rennie, Carlo Cecchi, Kanata Hongo.

Credits: Directed by François Girard. Screenplay by François Girard & Michael Golding. Based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco. Produced by Niv Fichman, Nadine Luque, Domenico Procacci, Sonoko Sakai. Executive producers: Tom Yoda, Yasushi Shiina, Akira Ishii, Camelo Galano, Jonathan Debin, Patrice Theroux. Director of photography: Alain Dostie. Production designer: François Seguin. Film editor: Pia Di Ciaula. Composer: Ryuichi Sakamoto. Costume design: Carlo Poggioli, Kazuko Kurosawa. Sound: Claude La Haye, Claude Beaugrand, Olivier Calvert, Hans Peter Strobl, Bernard Geriépy Strobl. A Picturehouse presentation, in association with Alliance Atlantis, Asmik Ace Entertainment, Inc., and Medusa Film, of a Rhombus Media, Fandango, and Bee Vine Pictures production, in association with Productions Soie and Vice Versa Films, and the participation of IFF/CINV, Telefilm Canada, T.Y. Limited, and The Works Media Group. In English and Japanese.

Picturehouse/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/108 mins./Rated R

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