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Meandering and overwrought, the only thing that's efficient about Francois Girard's adaptation of Alessandro Baricco's romantic period novel Silk is its title.


In 1860s France, charismatic silk entrepreneur Baldabiou (Alfred Molina) enlists would-be military man Hervé Joncour (Michael Pitt) to travel to the far reaches of the world to acquire unblemished silkworm eggs, since the European crop has been ravaged by disease. Reluctantly parting from his schoolteacher wife Helene (Keira Knightley), Hervé globetrots first to Africa and then, more significantly, Japan. It is in this mysterious, conflict-ridden Asian nation that he meets an enigmatic land owner (Koji Yakusho) and his beautiful mistress (Sei Ashina)--and develops an obsession that defies time, distanc--and, apparently, communication issues, since Hervé doesn't speak Japanese. It challenges everything he thinks he knows about life and duty and threatens to undermine his domestic bliss back at home.


Silk has plenty of problems, but one of the biggest is its star. As angsty and unexpressive as he comes across (his facial hair goes through more variations than his actual face), it's hard to imagine Pitt's Hervé as anyone's idea of a passionate romantic hero. Not that the women he loves are particularly exciting, either. All Knightley has to do is gaze at Pitt soulfully and beam at her fellow villagers when they help plant her dream garden (oh, and show off her naked breasts, which may be what this movie becomes best known for). Ashina remains an enigma--albeit a lovely one--since viewers never really get to know her. Yakusho has a few good moments, but the movie's only truly compelling character is Baldabiou; Molina plays him as a sly, engaging rascal, and his few scenes are the movie's most energetic.


Considering how many captivating, action-packed movies have been based on short stories (from Blade Runner to In the Bedroom), it's doubly disappointing that Silk--which was based on an actual book (albeit a short one, at under 150 pages)--still feels at least an hour too long. The movie looks gorgeous, lingering on silent, snowy Japanese villages, windswept steppes, dripping branches, and golden French gardens. But the story never really builds momentum; you keep waiting for the ''real'' action to start ... but it never does. The poignant, plinky piano score doesn't help, and neither does Pitt's solemn voiceover, both of which are used to fill the movie's many long silences. Girard is capable of making a film that is both lovely and gripping (The Red Violin), but Silk isn't it.

Bottom Line rated this film 1 1/2 stars.