“Silk” is a snooze. Vacuous, arid and terminally dull, this adaptation of Alessandro Baricco’s freak bestseller hasn’t a trace of real life or energy to it, and is hamstrung by a lethargic lead performance by Michael Pitt as a French military officer that suggests he’d rather be back playing Kurt Cobain for Gus Van Sant. Novel’s rep and Keira Knightley’s presence will give this a leg up in certain markets, especially in Europe, but general B.O. outlook, and certainly in the U.S., looks wispy.
Italian writer Baricco’s 1997 novel was one of those oddball successes, like “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” that occasionally breaks through on the basis of a bogus poetic profundity and faux romanticism, despite a defiant lack of characterization, detail and depth. Unfortuately, French-Canadian helmer Francois Girard (“The Red Violin”) is faithful to this aesthetic to a fault, serving up this flimsy tale as if it were a priceless artifact.
Result feels inauthentic in nearly every detail. The Italian town of Sermoneta fills in not very convincingly for a provincial French town of 1862, when young Herve Joncour (Pitt) leaves the army, marries beautiful schoolteacher Helene (Knightley) and, in the employ of entrepreneur Baldabiou (Alfred Molina), heads off for a long journey in search of uninfected silkworm eggs, as the local eggs have been afflicted with a disease.
From the very start, the air feels sucked out of the picture by Pitt, who mopes around as if he hasn’t a thought in his head, a desire in his heart or enough energy for a brisk walk, much less a trek to Japan.
Despite the potential for adventure and ethnographic detail in this ambitious trip across two continents, pic (like the novel) is entirely uninterested in such mundane matters. Once Herve arrives at his destination, the film in no way explores the nature of Japan in its final days of virtually total isolation from the outside world; compared to this, “The Last Samurai” was a paragon of cultural investigation and insight.
Despite the ban on trade with the West, Herve manages to make a deal with rural strongman Hara Jubei (Koji Yakusho) and smuggles enough eggs back to France to make himself and virtually everyone else in his village rich from the silk they produce in Baldabiou’s factories.
Less fertile, alas, is the union between Herve and Helene. To the latter’s distress, she never becomes pregnant and so must content herself with her students as well as a lovely new home and garden, while Herve heads back to Japan again the next year. Knightley’s performance, for which she adopts an American accent, presumably so that it will match Pitt’s, mainly consists of bland, longing-filled greetings and farewells, along with a topless bed scene.
Story comes to pivot on Herve’s fascination for Hara Jubei’s concubine, imaginatively called the Girl (model Sei Ashina), whom the Frenchman eyes meaningfully until they share one rapturous night prior to his second departure for Europe with more eggs. As such stories like to put it, Herve is changed forever by this encounter, his subsequent obsession fueled by a note in Japanese that reads, “Come back, or I shall die.”
One final trip to a now war-ravaged Japan ensues, and the high hand of fate orchestrates the final details, which are portrayed in a state of airless drama.
As aggravatingly boring as the film is, the least one might expect is a canvas of exceptional beauty to distract the eyes. But even this is denied, as Alain Dostie’s lensing has an unattractively brownish cast and is not strikingly composed in the bargain.
Although pic clocks in at under two hours, it feels interminable. A period Japanese village was constructed on location, although this section could almost have been shot anywhere for all the atmosphere evoked.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is okay, but nowhere near the level of his work on “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” and “The Last Emperor.”