Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The epic qualities of Alessandro Baricco’s novel have been diminished by French Canadian director Francois Girard (The Red Violin) to a tedious travelogue. The narrative voice-over sounds like the deathbed ramblings of a disappointed man. Even the music, a solitary piano played, you imagine, in an empty room by a manic depressive, is suicidal. Keira Knightley plays a village schoolteacher, like Diana Spencer at her kindergarten, and Michael Pitt, as an ex-soldier, with the charisma of curds-and-whey, marries her, but can’t stop thinking about a Chinese concubine (Sei Ashina) he met in Japan.

The only person in this dreadful film with a spark of life is Alfred Molina, as the entrepreneur who builds silk mills on the river and brings prosperity to the village, which is in France, by the way, not that it matters since everyone speaks English. When his silk worms become diseased and die, he persuades Pitt to leave the army, work for him and go to Egypt to collect fresh ones. The period is the 1860s when any journey over 100 kilometers is considered life threatening and deadly foolish.

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Being unimaginative and easily persuaded, Pitt does this and then does it again, except this time to Japan, where, in a mountain fastness, he finds the perfect worms and the perfect woman, who happens to belong to the local warlord (Koji Yakusho), who happens to speak English. After a series of slow motion bathing sequences, they get it together and briefly, unbelievably, Pitt smiles.

Meanwhile, back home, Knightley pines, planning a formal garden in the forest outside their posh new house, which, when finished, with the help of half the village, is planted entirely with white lilies. She can’t have children, or he can’t, which adds to her sense of isolation and since he’s away all the time, her role in life and the film becomes obsolete and so she does what women tend to do when ignored, she contracts an energy-sapping illness that forces her husband to take notice.

The yawn factor dominates, mainly due to Pitt’s performance. Knightley tries her hardest, but is incapable of raising his pulse rate. Early on, there is a scene of marital love making, which implies that she is either a virgin, or finds the whole thing painful to the extreme. Since Pitt is never going to ask, “How was it for you, darling?”, although he does mumble, “You all right?” and she lies, he drops the subject. And yet when it comes to Japanese slo-mo sensuality, there is nothing you can do but admire the photography, because arousal has been dulled to death long before.

“I’m going to bed,” she says.

“I’ll be up in a minute,” he says.

Gloomy piano.

The end.

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2007
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Silk packshot
19th century travels in search of silk worms introduces the perfectly naked Japanese concubine.
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Director: Francois Girard

Writer: Francois Girard, Michael Golding, based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco

Starring: Michael Pitt, Keira Knightley, Alfred Molina, Sei Ashina, Koji Yakusho, Kenneth Welsh, Miki Nakatani, Callum Keith Rennie, Mark Rendall, Chiara Stampone

Year: 2007

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada/France/Italy/UK/Japan


Leeds 2007

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