Adapting a novel steeped in sensory experiences requires transporting them into an entirely different medium. Within the first 15 pages of Haruki Murakami’s soulful 1987 romance “Norwegian Wood,” the Japanese novelist drifts effortlessly between a pair of time periods separated by two decades. The movie, written and directed by Tran Anh Hung (“The Scent of the Green Papaya”), externalizes an inherently solipsistic story. As a result, it’s mainly a collage of pretty surfaces.
Set in 1967 but recalled by the protagonist in his older years, “Norwegian Wood” assumes the perspective of Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), a shy loner who buried himself in academia to avoid the trauma of his pal’s death. His life is dominated by two women: The downtrodden Naoko, who wastes her days in a desolate mental hospital in the countryside, and the comparatively cheery, freewheeling Midori (Kiko Mizuhara). Rather than build to a climactic love triangle, the story wanders between Watanabe’s tonally different encounters with these lovers, unsure where his priorities lie. The actors competently inhabit this divide and Tran stages their courtship with a poetic eye, which makes “Norwegian Wood” into an imminently watchable romance–if not the transcendent experience associated with Murakami’s rep.
Both the novel and the faithful screenplay contain frequent sexual chatter between Watanabe and the women as a physical expression of the characters’ erratic moods. With Midori, sex is a fun escape from the dry routine of everyday life, while Naoko — still suffering from her sexual incapability with her deceased friend — views desire as a malady with no apparent cure. Her burgeoning relationship with Watanabe is defined by fragility more than affection, while the Midori affair mainly involves lust.
And there you have it. “Norwegian Wood” never moves beyond the simplistic arrangement of these relationships, adhering to a basic rhythm not unlike the Beatles song from which it takes its name. Tran aims to centralize the emotional trajectory with a number of rote stylistic devices. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping’s credits include “In the Mood for Love,” and he contributes substantially to the movie’s luscious atmosphere. Cinematically, “Norwegian Wood” resembles a feeble riff on Wong Kar-Wai whimsy, particularly due to an expressive color palette that seems to reflect the characters’ ever-shifting moods. Johnny Greenwood’s silky compositions create a vaguely ominous effect, but the music appears detached from the events, dominating rather than complimenting each new development.
While the novel exists in Matsumoto’s headspace, the movie externalizes his point of view by its very nature. His voiceover mainly fleshes out the plot with a few introspective lines cribbed from the source material, seemingly paying ode to Murakami instead of realizing his vision. Admittedly lovely and heartfelt, “Norwegian Wood” is also hollow.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY?
Soda Pictures and Red Flag Releasing open the movie at the IFC Center in New York this Friday ahead of a national rollout. Murakami fans are far-reaching enough to sustain some preliminary interest, but the movie’s muted tone and mixed critical reactions will prevent it from doing much long-term business.