This is an abridged version of a review I wrote for Christianity Today Movies. To read the rest of this review, click here.
Hollywood is not above misrepresenting a film in hopes of drawing an audience. It’s not that the trailer for Silk misrepresents the film, so much as it does not tell the whole story. (Trailers that don’t reveal every plot point of the film they are promoting — now there’s a novel idea.) And yet, if you come away from the trailer thinking that Silk is merely a film about a upstanding, married, European man who goes to Japan on business and begins a torrid love affair you would be completely mistaken.
Silk begins at a sprint. 19th century French boy (Micheal Pitt’s Herve) meets girl (Keira Knightly’s Helene), boy and girl fall in love and get married, and boy resigns his army commission to begin working for Mr. Baldabiou (Alfred Molina), a local silk merchant with dreams of avarice. This all takes place in less than ten minutes.
The real meat of the story is what happens not when Herve is home, but on the road, traveling to exotic locations to procure the precious silkworm eggs that will ensure exorbitant profits both for him and his village. When a strange disease blights the local crop, Baldabiou dispatches Herve on a perilous trek to civil war-torn Japan for replacements.
To reach the mysterious land, Herve must journey by coach and then by train through Europe and into Russia, where a sled carries him across the 3,000 miles of the frozen Russian steppes until he can be deposited on a smuggler’s ship. Once in Japan, he is blindfolded and carried on horseback through the snowy Fukushima Mountains to a tiny village wreathed in snow.
This is Japan in perpetual winter, shrouded in fog and ice. Feudal warlords circle each other like jungle cats looking for a soft spot to strike. It is a scene few Westerners have ever laid eyes on; they are forbidden entry beyond the port cities.
It is in this small, unassuming hamlet that the stranger in a strange land meets the imposing warlord Hara Jubei (Kôji Yakusho) willing to strike a deal and give him protection. While Helene waits faithfully at home, barren and despondent that she will ever give birth to a child, Herve finds himself utterly captivated by his new business partner’s mistress (Sei Ashina). Even after he returns to Europe, he finds his every thought flits back to her.
Though they never exchanged so much as a word, he cannot get her out of his mind, cannot stop fantasizing about what it might be like to be with her. So great is his obsession, that he begins making excuses to undertake the treacherous journey again. With each successive visit, he is convinced that his feelings are returned, though the most communication he and the geisha ever have is a short note that reads: “Return to me or I shall die.”
Ultimately, Herve must make a choice — stay with Helene, who has grown ill, or risk everything for a manic, idealized fixation, the pursuit of whom will almost certainly get him killed.
Silk is a failure of a film, but one that could have been great. Based on the international bestselling novel by Alessandro Baricco, Silk had all the trappings of a monumental piece of filmmaking. Unfortunately, the fissures are clear from the start:
The script is clumsy and heavy-handed, relying on an all-too frequent voiceover that doesn’t even attempt to sound necessarily antiquated. However, the brunt of the blame lies with the casting.
Michael Pitt is woefully miscast as Herve. There is no passion or fire to him whatsoever, nothing that would attract a woman like Helene or an exotic concubine, much less the interest of an audience. He is flaccid and inert, a narcoleptic presence devoid of charisma, utterly lacking in force or will, a man who exists only on the interior. Knightly is beautiful, but unremarkable, inexplicably dropping her English accent for a plain, Americanized intonation. She is, perhaps, too beautiful for the role, as audiences will have a hard time believing anyone would cheat on her, no matter how glamorous the seductress.
Like its lead actor, Silk is beautiful but emotionless, bereft of feeling. In a story that supposedly stirs Herve’s loins, but is incapable of stirring our blood. We do not agonize over Herve’s horrible betrayal of Helene because we feel nothing for them individually, much less as a couple. We were never given the time to know them before Herve went gallivanting off to the ends of the earth. Should then their complete lack of chemistry come as any surprise?
To be sure, Silk is a gorgeous film to behold. MIA director François Girard (The Red Violin), cinematographer Alain Dostie and production designer Francois Seguin have crafted a magnificent looking film every bit as visually luxurious as the subject of its title. Silk often takes on the look of a painterly tableau, with dappled light and luxuriously soft camerawork. The location shots, from Italy’s Dolomites to Russia’s frozen tundra to Japan’s bamboo forests are ravishing.
There is a twist at the end of Silk that almost…almost…redeems the film entire. It is a twist that cannot be revealed here, but one which completely recontextualizes the film from a story of sordid affairs and derelict spouses to one of fidelity, devotion and faithfulness. One key character in the film turns out to be a sort of Hitchcockian MacGuffin — a detail which drives the plot and motives characters’ action but ultimately turns out to be unimportant and irrelevant to the story. It is a twist that imbues the film with a deep, moral and spiritual gravity, and ties up the narrative threads with a condemnation of adultery and a celebration of monogamous marriage. Unfortunately, it comes too little, too late to save the film.
Silk is a solemn, plodding and tedious film. While it labors hard to borrow the mantle of David Lean’s sumptuous romantic epics of yesteryear, it is far too thin and precariously balanced to support such an aspiration. It is worse than a straightforward bad film — it is a middling, stagnant film that could have been extraordinary.