Joncour (Pitt) marries his sweetheart Hélène (Knightley), but spends months away from home sourcing valuable silkworm eggs. In Japan, he becomes fixated with a concubine (Ashina). Soon his obsession begins to threaten his marriage...
The first thing that strikes you about Silk turns out to be the best thing about it: it looks fantastic. The camera drinks in the French and Japanese landscapes to stunning effect, frequently pausing over the full lips of its handsome leads. Love scenes between Hervé (Michael Pitt) and his wife Hélène (Keira Knightley) are tender and erotic, and Keira fans can expect plenty of Knightley on show. Yet, like the fabric Hervé travels so far to find, Silk is gorgeous, expensive... and very, very thin.
The slight story revolves around one man’s uneventful fixation on a concubine, whom he meets on visits to remote Japan. What can’t be told visually is explained via stilted, exposition-heavy dialogue and Pitt’s monotone narration. As Hervé, Pitt is drab and unsmiling, even in early scenes when he’s supposed to be happy. Why should we care about the fate of a man who can’t even summon enthusiasm about coming home to a sprightly Knightley? His obsession with the concubine is evident only from his actions (returning to look for her, getting her letters translated etc.), and the fact that the camera is clearly in lust with her. Perhaps Pitt is better at playing slackers and stoners. Maybe he’s been misdirected and underwritten. Either way, he’s a dull hero.
You’ve also got to ask why Knightley and Molina put on American accents to play French people. Presumably it’s for consistency with Pitt, but it hardly helps bring 19th century France to life. Molina does enliven proceedings as Hervé’s boss, an initially intriguing character whose decision to send his employee on life-threatening missions offers a hint of sinister promise. But like many of the film’s characters and subplots, it comes to nothing: an intriguing Dutch gun dealer pops up in Japan, but disappears after informing Hervé that his love interest is “not what you think she is. She’s not Japanese”. It’s as far as we get in understanding either his or her background.
With its soaring score and potentially emotive themes, Silk should be a moving study of love, lust and loss. But by neglecting its characters and narrative, it winds up as little more than an exercise
in expert cinematography.
A flat story, lean characters and a miscast lead make this a poor facsimile of period epics like Farewell My Concubine.