First-rate production values and acting elevate Rob Marshall's ambitious new film after his Oscar-winning Chicago.
Memoirs of a Geisha has an old-fashioned elegance to it even if the screenplay from Arthur Golden's acclaimed novel strains in overrall coherence and as a poignant exotic period romance.
Having three Chinese actresses like Ziyi Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, and Gong Li speaking in English in a rarefied Japanese society is a treat even if the accents sometimes reflect what comes from language barriers.
Yet, Marshall's measured, if aloof approach lavishly opens a secret world stunningly rendered in Colleen Atwood's costuming (the kimono is a central detailed visual element), Dion Beebe's deep-hued lensing, and John Myhre's lush recreation of the hanamachi (geisha section).
The story, devised by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright, attempts to illuminate the geisha life, beyond the perception of being an exotic type of escort. It involves ways of decorum and arts understated with the right emotion.
The timeline from the narration of Chiyo who becomes Sayuki (Zhang) is reduced from novel to post World War II tracing the tumultuous life of an orphan to a geisha who dethrones the brutal Hatsumomo, a scene-stealing Li of Raise The Red Lantern and 2046.
With her haunting eyes, Zhang exudes loveliness, especially around the halfway point as her virginal rise in the geisha process is felt against the pressure of Hatsumomo. The young adult star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and mesmerizing in 2046 blossoms in scenes of dancing and sumo wrestling, outside of the closed-knit geisha compound.
Her childhood servant friend, the clumsy Pumpkin, becomes Hatsumomo's protege, and, as played by Youki Kudoh (Snow Falling on Cedars), becomes an important player in the final, somewhat hastened act.
More than balancing the treachery and cruelness of Li is Yeoh's sensitive geisha trainer for Sayuki, Michelle. Yeoh, Zhang's co-star in Crouching Tiger, arguably is the most appealing and sympathetic character in Memoirs of a Geisha. Ken Watanabe offers decent support as The Chairman, first encountered by Sayuki as a lovestruck teen.
While the emotional restraint, dialogue, and flamboyance may not be an ideal mix for a virtuoso dramatic experience, this Geisha is dressed up with weight and sophistication, heightened by John Williams's dreamy score and Itzhak Perlman's violining and the stellar cello work by Yo-Yo Ma.