“ Genre: Drama / Theatrical Release: 2007 / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: Francois Gerard / Actors: Keira Knightley, Michael Pitt, Koji Yakusho, Alfred Molina, Sei Ashina ... / DVD released 2008-03-17 at Entertainment in Video / Features of the DVD: PAL „
I am a fan of period dramas. I am also a fan of Keira Knightley and particularly enjoyed all the period dramas she has done in the past such as Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and The Duchess so when I heard about another period drama she was in called Silk I thought it was worth a punt on Lovefilm (hence a film only review).
Set in a small town in 19th Century France that has made their wealth in the silk industry, a married silk merchant Hervé Joncour must travel incognito to Japan, back then a dangerous place to enter, to bring back healthy silk worm eggs to keep the trade alive as disease begins killing the town's usual supply from Africa. In Japan he develops a peculiar relationship with a young Japanese girl, an obsession which begins to affect his home life back in France and which ultimately may result in devastating consequences.
Michael Pitt - Hervé Joncour
Keira Knightley - Hélène Joncour
Kenneth Welsh - Mayor Joncour
Martha Burns - Mme. Joncour
Toni Bertorelli - Verdun
Sei Ashina - The Girl
Alfred Molina - Baldabiou
I knew absolutely nothing about the film before I watched and it wasn't until afterwards that I found out it was based upon a novel by Alessandro Baricco, a contemporary Italian writer and for me this little titbit of information explained a lot about this film...mainly what made it so unutterably dull. Having not read the novel I can only wildly speculate, but I suspect it was probably a very introspective novel based upon the internal musings of a narrator which was far too difficult to portray on the big screen and as a result all we were left with was extreme tedium. Anyone who has read the book can correct me if I'm wrong but it's the only way I can explain a distinct lack of imagination on screen!
I'll start with the positives of this film. The filming locations for both France (which were actually filmed in Italy) and Japan looked absolutely stunning, particularly the beautiful landscapes in Japan. There were some sweeping shots of the houses depicting 19th Century life in France as well as some beautiful unspoiled areas of greenery and in Japan there were amazing snow covered vistas, steaming lakes and lovely recreations of old Japanese style houses to wonderfully and realistically set the scenes. Okay, that is it for the positives.
Where this film fell down for me was the lack of connection with the audience during any part of the film. Michael Pitt as the lead Hervé Joncour was frankly wooden, dreary and a touch gormless for the most part and all other characters were just supporting roles (though supporting what I'm not sure) and were never fleshed out enough with back stories and proper characterisation for you to ever care about them. The chemistry between Pitt and Knightley wasn't great and for me Knightley was direly underused as she had practically nothing to do but sit around waiting. Likewise the talents of Alfred Molina were completely wasted as although his character was intriguing and added a bit of spark to the monotony but again he had very little to do.
The real trouble lied with the fact nothing was made clear in the film. You know, trivial, unimportant things like the motivations and general thoughts and feelings of all the characters! These were poorly portrayed and in some cases non-existent, but most noticeably those of Hervé Joncour were completely AWOL which, being vaguely essential to understanding the purpose of this film, was quite detrimental. There was not enough dialogue and certainly not enough action / plot developments to keep the film flowing at a good, enjoyable pace - watching people travelling in silence and sitting around staring at each other for no obvious reason certainly doesn't get the old synapses firing.
I felt like there were wasted opportunities galore in this film. Learning more about the way of life in France and Japan in the 19th Century could have been very enlightening as well as learning about the silk trade itself and actually seeing the devastating consequences to the town when this trade began to weaken would have all added some depth and interest to the film. Only seeing the film from one (dull) person's perspective just didn't work. Seeing the effect his actions had on everybody around him would have been far more compelling and would have created a much more complex world compared to the one dimensional, purposeless one we were lumped with.
After about an hour of watching in seething frustration, (I had turned down the chance to watch paint dry to watch this film) I was tempted to actually give up, but felt I had devoted too much time by that stage that I really should persevere in case, by some miracle, the film transformed into some profound, life affirming bonanza. It was not to be. As the film began to unravel and draw to a conclusion the point where the drama and passion was supposed to reach a crescendo came...and fell rather flat despite the best efforts from Knightley. Even she couldn't pull it out of the fire as the depth required to make it work just wasn't there.
Having built up zero affinity with any of the characters the tentative step towards danger where attempts to build up tension and peril imploded spectacularly leaving us with a damp squib, not to mention the stab at a shock ending having no discernible effect on me whatsoever all failed to lift the film from the river of dullness it had been treading water in. Even the soundtrack had no vitality or spirit to it and was just as dreary and dull as the rest of the film and didn't help in any way to create any kind of atmosphere or tension that was so badly needed.
For me the fault mostly lies with the screenplay writer and director François Girard who wrote such a slow and unimaginative script. The actors did the best with the material they were given, but I think that Michael Pitt, who had the most important role, just didn't have the screen presence to portray the emotions required and none of the other actors had the chance to showcase their talents. Maybe having read the book beforehand could make it easier to find meaning in this film, especially if you already know the character motivations, but for those of us going in blind this film just doesn't work. My advice - give this one a miss!
In 19th century France, for Herve Joncour, life is going well. He is married to the love of his life, Helene, and a chance assignment to Africa to collect silkworm eggs involves him becoming rich. Then the souce of silkworm eggs becomes diseased and his boss asks him to go 'to the end of the world', or Japan, to source new eggs. Trading in Japan is not easy, but Herve does well and manages to find what he needs from a powerful Japanese lord. All would be well, but Herve becomes obsessed with the Japanese lord's concubine and his relationship with Helene is compromised. After he leaves Japan, he continues to write to the concubine. Will he be able to forget her? Or is his relationship with Helene doomed?
Based on a book by Francois Girard, this 2007 film slipped beneath most people's radar, even though Keira Knightley is in one of the leading roles. It is, perhaps, easy to see why it was so overlooked - it is a truly beautiful film, but the fact that the story revolves around 19th century Japan doesn't make it appealing to a large audience. Then there is the fact that it is an extremely slow story - much of the first part of the film revolves around Herve's travelling and, although picturesque, there isn't very much else to keep the levels of interest up. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating story - the work that went into supplying rich European ladies with silk is incredible - and the gorgeous, often sumptuous, setting is a real visual pleasure. The love affair, for me at least, is a secondary thread to the story.
Herve is played by Michael Pitt. I recognised him from Murder by Numbers, where he played a real creep and he was also in The Village. As a lead character, I wasn't really sure that he was strong enough to carry the film. He just about holds his head above water, but he didn't leave me with any great impression of his acting. Somehow his love scenes with the concubine (we don't find her name) are a bit icky when they should have been romantic. Still, he managed to do what he needed to. Keira Knightley plays Helene, his wife, and spends much of the film looking pretty and is very much in the background. She does have her moments though, so although I am not her biggest fan, I think she was right for the role. And her chemistry with Michael Pitt is much more realistic.
Alfred Molina plays the silk tradesman who sends Herve to Japan. He is a man of great presence and Molina really brings him to life. It is only a small role, but it is one that is worth watching out for, because he really makes his mark on the film. Also good is Koji Yakusho who plays the Japanese lord. There is a real feeling of power that emanates from him and, although he doesn't talk all that much, he manages to portray that he is just as capable of being a friend as he is an enemy. The unnamed concubine, who is played by Sei Ashina is an ideal choice in that she looks beautiful, although we don't really get to know all that much about her.
Director Francois Girard and the production crew have done an absolutely stunning job of choosing the settings and making them look at their very best - and for me, that is what makes the film. I love visually pleasing films and this one is perfect. Filmed in Japan, Italy and, oddly enough, Kidderminster in the UK, the scenery is divine. On his way to Japan, Herve is forced to travel across some horrendous terrain, often in the snow, which is truly beautiful to watch. In France (actually Italy!, or is it Kidderminster?!), the Joncours live in the midst of a forest and it is a real feast for the eyes, especially because of the masses of flowers that Helen plants. I would happily watch the film again with no sound, just to see some of those sights again. The historical aspects of the story were also very well portrayed with some truly beautiful costumes.
One of the criticisms that seem to have been levelled at the film is the fact that Pitt is American, Knightly and Molina are British, and they retain their accents while apparently speaking French. This is marginally silly, when I come to think about it, but for the purposes of the film, I didn't think it mattered all that much. Another criticism is that the Japanese spoken was not subtitled. This, I think, was deliberate though - it was to show how Herve himself, who couldn't understand Japanese, struggled when he was in Japan. I thought this was very effective and not something that really needs to be criticised. I was interested to see that the orchestration was led by Ryuichi Sakamoto, a well-known Japanese musician and composer, probably most famous in the West for his collaboration with David Sylvian and Iggy Pop. The music is beautiful, very Japanese and very unobtrusive.
There is no doubt that this is a ponderously slow film at times. The story is told by Herve, and it is largely a navel-gazing story - his love for two women and the conflict that he feels. Perhaps if Michael Pitt had given a better performance, it would have been a more compelling story. I do think that the ending could have been a little better done. There is a little bit of a twist in the tale, but not one that is going to cause any great excitement, and it does leave the viewer feeling a little flat. Certainly, anyone hoping for some action isn't going to get any here - the only reason I can think that there is a classification of 15 is that there is an occasional glimpse of naked women's breasts and some simulated sex - there is certainly no violence or bad language.
The only extra is a theatrical trailer.
On the whole, I enjoyed the film. It is beautifully made, the historical background is fascinating and the story is intriguing, to a point. It isn't, however, one that many people would want to see in a cinema - I can imagine many people wouldn't make it past the first hour. If, however, you enjoy excellent cinematography and have an interest in the Far East, then this is well worth a watch. Just don't expect the acting from the main characters to be top notch. Three stars out of five.
The DVD is available from play.com for £4.99. My version was from Poundland.
Running time: 104 minutes