Like the “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootise Roll Pop?” commercial, Silk asks: how many gorgeously rendered landscapes and meticulously constructed period sets does it take to make you care about one rich guy’s feelings? Unlike that sneaky owl, though, Silk doesn’t rely on lazy shortcuts — you know, like an engaging story, or rich characterization, or dramatic tension.
Canadian director Francois Girard takes his time setting up the plot, in which local businessman Alfred Molina sends young newlywed Michael Pitt to Japan to procure the silkworm eggs on which the future prosperity of their scenic French village depends. The plot may not be Casablanca, but the film has an appealing specificity of time and place, which makes it all the more frustrating that Girard declines to mine the setting and milieu — rural France and feudal Japan in the 1860s, silk production and international smuggling — for anything more than eye candy.
Instead Girard, whose last film was The Red Violin, another stately period piece, focuses all his attention on Pitt’s romantic obsession with a Japanese concubine and the toll it takes on his marriage to Keira Knightley. The story plays out without any real substance, though, as if Girard filmed a synopsis, not a finished script. What meager plot he can be bothered to provide is often related through Pitt’s clunky voiceover narration; presumably, Girard was afraid to actually dramatize his story, lest he interrupt the mood of repressed longing. In the end, Silk suffocates in its own self-importance, packing about the same emotional wallop as a particularly majestic travel brochure.