SILK, based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco, is a singularly uninvolving bit of piffle crafted as though those who made it were afraid of waking someone. The scenery is lovely, which is a good thing, because there is nothing else happening here worth seeing. And from this we learn a valuable lesson. Art direction alone can’t carry a film.
Screenwriter/director Francois Girard, who crafted THE RED VIOLIN, is less inspired in rendering a tale of silkworms and smuggling. Herve Joncour (Michael Pitt) crosses the globe from France to Japan, challenging the difficulties of 19th-century travel, the icy Russian steppes, and Japan’s closed-door policy when it comes to anyone entering the country who is not native born. His quest is a supply of silkworm eggs not infected by virus that has wiped out his usual source. There he encounters a warlord willing to do business with a foreigner and the warlord’s enigmatic mistress (Sei Ashina). Where sexual obsession should bloom there is instead a series of picture postcards. They are lovely, from a white-haired man in a snow-covered forest, to the strange formality of a tea ceremony. Perfect composition, glossy lighting and performances that are barely perceptible. When Herve returns home from his first trip, after being away for months with no certainty about when or even if he will return, the reaction of his lovely new wife, Helene (Keira Knightly) says, and I quote, “You’re back” with an inert monotone that is as astonishing as it is ridiculous.
There is not so much passion as posing for all the lovemaking and longing going. Even the undeniable voluptuousness of Pitt’s cupid’s bow lips fails to overcome it, even when the camera lingers on them oh so lovingly as he soaks in a Japanese bath, blindfolded and receiving the tender ministrations of the Japanese woman for whom he pines. Back in France, Knightly broods over her childless state, though that brooding is hard to distinguish from her other emotions. Actually, it’s hard to distinguish any emotions at work here, even when civil war rages in Japan, and terminal illnesses crop up in France. There is one exception and that is Alfred Molina, bless him, as a one-handed silk merchant with a penchant for playing pool, he stirs things to life with his native ebullience, bustling along with a bright-eyed buoyancy in the realm of sleepwalkers. Pitt, never seeming so young and immature, fades into the lovely background as just another beautiful ornament providing a framework for an exercise in extreme boredom.
This is a motion picture that is remarkable for his stubbornly static quality. People, like events, move ponderously, as does the camera, when any of them move at all. The effect is like a still-life, carefully thought out in color, light, and arrangement, but completely lacking any vestige of life in the stillness. Watching a metronome drone on at its slowest setting would be more diverting that SILK. And would make just as much sense.