"Why should I tell you about it?" asks 19th-century French merchant Herve Joncour (Michael Pitt) of his tale of unrequited love. "Why now? Maybe I just need to tell someone about it." Canadian director Francois Girard's logy adaptation of Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco's slim, internationally best-selling book never begins to answer Joncour's question: It's dull, opaque and stunningly unengaging.
1861: Pressured by his stern father to pursue a military career, young Joncour sees escape and adventure in local textile entrepreneur Baldabiou's (Alfred Molina) offer of a fine fee in exchange for an arduous and illegal trip to Japan's interior in search of silkworm eggs free of pebrine, the disease that's ravaged France's stock. Joncour's military training has never taken him far from his Lavilledieu home, and Japan is "the end of the world." So Joncour goes, learns some practical lessons about the East-West divide and returns to his new bride, Helene (Keira Knightley), a wealthy man. He also comes home infected by a strange passion for the concubine (Sei Ashina) of his Japanese trading partner, sensual warlord Hara Jubei (Koji Yakusho). Joncour and the unnamed woman are divided by language, geography and culture, but there's a powerful bond between them nonetheless, and she becomes still more intriguing when, during Joncour's second trip, a shady Dutch arms trader (Callum Keith Rennie) whispers that she isn't what she seems in fact, she isn't even Japanese. Yet once again Joncour returns to France, his patient wife and his familiar Lavilledieu (which means "City of God" in English); he even saves his neighbors from the threat of imminent starvation by means of a baronial make-work project: He employs them all to build Helene the lush formal garden she's always wanted.
Cinematographer Alain Dostie's stunning, painterly cinematography is the best and perhaps only reason to endure this stunted epic, in which the story never quite gets around to unfolding against a backdrop of rugged mountains, icy steppes, and perilous trips by foot, train, and horseback through realms so exotic to a mid-19th-century European Frenchman that they could as easily have been Valhalla or the land of Tir na Nog. The film's greatest liability is Pitt, an actor whose strengths are a poor match for a story in which everything that matters is unspoken and unconsummated; his placid, unruffled demeanor reveals nothing beyond the surface and his monotonous voiceover reduces the world's wonders and heart's mysteries to trite blather. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh