Toronto Film Fest 2007–Based on the international best-selling novel by Alessandro Baricco, Francois Girard's “Silk” is an art film of the worst kind, a dull, deliberately measured wannabe sweeping romantic drama, woven around a tale of ethereal qualities.

What has happened to the gifted Canadian director Girard, who gave us the brilliant and original “Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould,” and then made the decent and watchable “The Red Violin,” that I didn't care for, but some critics did.

On paper, all the ingredients are in place for an old-fashioned romantic saga, beginning with stars like Michael Pitt (“”The Dreamers,” “The Village”) Oscar nominee Keira Knightley (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” Pride & Prejudice,” and the superb upcoming romance “Atonement”), Alfred Molina (“Spider-Man 2,” “The Hoax”), and Koji Yakusho (“Babel”).

The premise of the tale is quite intriguing, particularly for viewers unfamiliar with the era or subject. A roguish French trader named Baldabiou (Alfred Molina) holds preciously in his hands a veil woven from Japanese silk thread. But what exactly does it mean

You know what this is Baldabiou asks the mayor of the town of Lavilledieu. Womens stuff, the mayor replies quickly, in a dismissive way. Absolutely wrong, the trader answers. Money. Man stuff.

Baldabious is not kidding. Having silkworm eggs means that one could hold thousands of them. Indeed, when the pbrine epidemicthe spotted silkworm disease that ravaged eggs from European hatcheries in the 1860sspread overseas, eggs from as far away as Africa and India became infected and the European silk trade is about to collapse.

Nonetheless, to continue his lucrative trade, the unfazed Baldabiou decides to send the young military officer Herve
Joncour (Michael Pitt) on a perilous mission to Japan, separating him for months from Helene (Keira Knightley), his lovely and devoted schoolteacher wife.

The island that has been producing the finest silk in the world for centuries before the opening of the Suez Canal becomes forbidden to foreigners. The initially ignorant Herve asks, This place, Japan, where precisely is it That way and keep going, Baldabiou says, raising the tip of his cane and pointing beyond the roofs of Saint-August. Right to the end of the world. And over a century ago, it was for most Westerners the end of the world.

We follow Herve's long, torturous journey. To reach this mysterious land, Herve journeys through Europe, first traveling by train from Vienna, through Moravia onto Kiev. There, he hires a caravan to cross the Russian steppes, 3,000 miles of ice and storm, and sail across the sea on a smugglers ship.

Herve is then secreted from a Yamagata harbor into the islands interior and is led, blindfolded to a snow-covered village of thatch, wood, and bamboo, tucked into the snowy Fukushima
Mountains. Unfortunately, all these adventures are depicted in a solemn, unexciting way.

In Kiev, Herve encounters the powerful and feared local baron, Hara Jubei (Yakusho), with whom he trades for the precious silkworm eggs. It's a world unlike anything he has seen or experienced before.

Among other novel experiences, Herve becomes entranced by the barons concubine, a mysterious, beautiful woman. From that point on, the studied film unfolds as a doomed, obsessive love, in which the lovers don't even speak the same language.

Perhaps a brilliant director like David Lean could have pulled off a trilling or decent movie out of a potentially rapturous epic romance, based on East meets West, or East vs. West. But not Girard, who has made a solemn, studied, and tedious film. I have not read Baricco's 1996 novel, an internationally best-selling phenom that has been translated into 26 languages. But considering that “Silk” is a short novel, helmer has made a feature that feels very very long.

Some of the problems reside in the adaptation of a book that is written in a very spare, poetic language. Director Girard and his team have not met the challenge of transposing a lyrical love story told with a light touch into an engaging picture; au contraire, “Silk” the movie is heavy-handed.

Then there's the issue of characterization. Though placed within the frame of an exotic epic, as conceived and played by Pitt,
Herve is an explorer who is a passive observer, a traveler who takes in everything that surrounds himin awe. Respecting what he sees, Herve doesnt try to change anything, just to understand it.

Since there is not much chemistry between Pitt's Herve and Knightley's Helen, “Silk” doesn't work as a touching love story in the early chapters. And lack of chemistry between Herve and the Japanese girl means that the other, obsessive romance doesn't come across effectively or lively, either.

Fans of the vastly talented Knightley will be disappointed with her performance in “Silk,” though I don't think it's her fault. They will have to wait until the wonderful periodalso doomedromance “Atonement,” by Joe Wright, bows in December to appreciate the beauty and gifts of Knightley, who's likely to get an Oscar nomination for that picture, her second in two years!

Director of photography Alain Dostie and production designer Francois Seguin, who received Genie Awards (Canadian Oscars) for “The Red Violin,” deserve credit for their attention to visual and period detail. In moments, “Silk” boasts visual beauty in a series of painterly tableaux, but the pacing is so deliberate that few viewers will absorb the imagery for long without looking at their watches.


Herve Joncour: Michael Pitt
Helene Joncour: Keira Knightley
Baldabiou: Alfred Molina
Hara Jubei: Koji Yakusho
Madame Blanche: Miki Nakatani
Ludovic: Mark Rendall
Girl: Sei Ashina


Credits: Running time: 109 Minutes
MPAA rating: R

A Picturehouse presentation in association with Alliance Atlantis/Asmik Ace Entertainment/Mesuda Film a Rhombus Media/Fandango/Bee Vine Pidctures presentation
Director: Francois Girard
Screenplay: Francois Girard, Michael Golding
Based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco
Producers: Niv Fichman, Nandine Luque, Domenico Procacci, Sonoko Sakai
Executive producers: Tom Yoda, Yashshi Shina, Akira Ishii, Camela Galano, Jonathan Debin, Patrice Theroux, Alessandro Baricco
Director of photography: Alain Dostie
Production designer: Francois Seguin
Costume designers: Carlo Poggioli, Kazuko Kurosawa
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Editor: Pia Di Ciaula