Arthur Golden's compulsive 1997 novel about a secret Japanese world sold over four million English-language copies and was translated into 32 languages. This made it sure-fire screen adap material and the sort of undertaking that gets salivating producers dreaming of red carpet glory. A Kyoto Cinderella tale taking place in World War Two, with ancient female traditions and a heartaching, enduring romance - any film version of Memoirs promised to be that Academy favourite, the sweeping costume drama.
It's surprising, then, that the project languished for years amid directing musical chairs and debates about whether to Westernise the story before Chicago helmer Marshall took the reins - no doubt with studio hopes for a goldrush come 5 March. The resulting opulent, beautiful interpretation ticks most of Oscar's "Gorgeous Epic" boxes, but with one notable and unavoidable exception: the tangible lack of an emotional core.
Despite boasting all the right ingredients to induce sentiment (Spielberg producing, John Williams scoring, an accomplished cast and a wad of cash to evoke a lost era), watching Sayuri's considerable trials and tribulations is a curiously cold and uninvolving experience. Though faithful to Golden's work and luscious on the eye, Marshall's intricately-detailed fable feels episodic rather than grand - war flashing past confusingly off-screen, for example - while the many moral complexities of being a geisha are muddled. Is an audience supposed to pity Sayuri as a glorified slave, applaud her survival instinct or sympathise with a love that cannot be declared within a highly traditional society? By the time our girl reaches a weak-kneed romantic epiphany, it's difficult to care, let alone be moved by Ziyi Zhang's tears.
Perhaps the problem lies with the decision to cast Chinese actresses in central roles and coach them to speak English with a Japanese inflection. While English-fluent Yeoh triumphs as a cool, calm businesswoman keen to cash in on Sayuri's fame, Zhang and Ken Watanabe struggle to fully emote within the confines of English language. Still, this makes their silences all the more impactful - especially in an incandescent scene where Zhang dances on a snowy stage or the moment Gong Li's jealous rival geisha pulls an incendiary strop.
Quibbles aside, Memoirs remains an ocular feast thanks to Dion Beebe's evocative lensing, exhaustively detailed production design and rich, vibrant costumes that vie with actors for attention. It's hard to believe most of this was shot in an LA studio, so redolent are the dazzling cherry blossom gardens, teeming streets and candle-lit tea houses. In this respect, Marshall certainly transports to another world - it's just a pity he doesn't take your heart with him.
Rather like the perfect geisha, Rob Marshall's movie adap is exquisite to look at but curiously cool and aloof.
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