Silk is without a doubt one of the most, if not the most, resplendently beautiful motion pictures I have ever seen. Unfortunately it's a beauty at times only skin deep, an extraordinarily pretty wrapping around a strangely emotionless core that nonetheless sports some excellent performances and, at times anyway, an evocative musical score.
The film deals with the travels of a 19th century French trader played by Michael Pitt, who is sent on several journeys to Japan by town silk mill owner Alfred Molina. Though Pitt early in the film marries Keira Knightley, and the two are portrayed as being deeply in love, Pitt falls in love with a Japanese (or is she?) woman and spends the rest of the film on a Lost Horizon like quest to find her.
While the basic plot of the film is sound, and the visuals are truly spectacular, the opening act is marred by some oversimplification, with no one's backgrounds or motives sufficiently developed, which would also have given the entire film more emotional heft in its remaining acts. Molina's character especially is broadly, yet sketchily, drawn and his relationship with Pitt is never explored past the surface of their plans to bring silkworms back from the Orient.
Also hampering the film is Michael Pitt's emotionless delivery of the incessant narration (which is actually a sound part of the plot device). When Pitt's apparent reason for his tamped down emotions is revealed late in the film, it seems too little, too late, especially since his character, as in the case of Molina's, is basically a cipher.
Keira Knightley brings some grace and spark to her character, but again it's so underwritten at times that her efforts are largely for naught. When the film finally finds its emotional punch about 10 minutes before the end, it is largely due to Knightley's performance (again partly in a voiceover).
It pains me to find some fault Ryuichi Sakamoto's at times exquisitely beautiful score, since I am such a fan of Sakamoto's music. Unfortunately some of Sakamoto's decisions seem inappropriate and are exacerbated by unfortunate mixing levels. The use of a solo piano, especially in the sections using block chords, pulls the viewer out of the film. When Sakamoto introduces a solo piano arpeggiated figure late in the film (when a Japanese translator is reading a letter ostensibly from Pitt's long ago Japanese love), it works beautifully. Similarly, the ethnic Japanese instruments (notably a shakuhachi) combined with strings are all handled gorgeously.
The real star of this film is the exquisite cinematography of Alain Dostie. There are so many breathtaking images throughout this film that at least one repeated viewing is virtually a necessity.
This is a film that takes its time, and for those (like me) sick of endless quick cutting and other editing tricks, its leisurely pace will be appreciated. Perhaps because of its cold exterior, the going may seem slow at times, but if you stick with it, the ending at least partially makes up for the lack of emotion in the first two-thirds of the film.