PAINTED VEIL, THE
In 1920s England, middle class bacteriologist Walter Fane (Edward Norton), and upper class Kitty (Naomi Watts) - have married for the wrong reasons. Walter is in love with Kitty, but fun-loving Kitty, under pressure to marry soon, is just eager to get as far away from her mother as possible. When they relocate to Shanghai, Kitty falls in love with English Vice Consul Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber) and has an affair. When Walter uncovers her infidelity, in an act of vengeance he takes her to a remote village in China ravaged by cholera, ostensibly to provide medical help.
Review by Louise Keller:
Politics, culture clash and unrealistic expectations are the mainstay of The Painted Veil, a cinematic and engrossing tale in which infidelity and guilt form a raft on a punchy emotional journey. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts produced and star in this film version of Somerset Maugham's novel, whose journey is more than geographical as newlyweds leave England to embrace a new life in Shanghai. Concealed passions are revealed as life takes unexpected turns and what initially seems like an act of vengeance becomes the making of the central characters.
When we meet Kitty at the beginning of the film, her disdainful, accusing look says it all. There is no doubt she would rather be anywhere else in the world, than in the middle of this desolate, grassy field with muddy puddles, surrounded by distinctively flat-topped hills. As Kitty and Walter make their hot and arduous journey to the remote cholera-infested village, we learn their story in flashback, when they met two years earlier at an elegant soiree in London. Norton is outstanding as Walter, a serious young man, who chooses not to speak unless he has something to say. Like the man himself, his proposal to superficial Kitty is a clumsy affair. Her acceptance to sharing his life in Shanghai has nothing to do with love, but is but a convenient escape from her appearance-conscious mother. Watts buries herself in the role of Kitty (played by Greta Garbo in the 1934 film), learning life's tough lessons when she least expects it (the first being through her affair with Liev Schreiber's charming but married Charlie).
Director John Curran takes a little too long before reaching the remote village of Mei-tan-fu, where Kitty is unsure whether the nationalists, boredom or cholera will kill her first. There is no quick healing of Kitty and Walter's relationship and we become engrossed in the reality of life in this hell-hole. It is the circumstances of their dire predicament that brings them firstly to an impasse before an intimate understanding. Toby Jones is terrific as the surprising neighbour, Diana Rigg, now aged 70 plays the insightful Mother Superior, and we are haunted by the faces of the Chinese infants in the orphanage. Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography is stunning as is the sense of time and place that Curran achieves in his spectacular Chinese locations. The pace may be leisurely, but the emotions are explosive in this tense romance that captures all the nuances of an absorbing melodrama.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
John Curran's gritty feature, Praise, doesn't prepare us for his lyrical yet sinewy treatment of W. Somerset Maugham's romantic drama, which is just as well. Curran's cinematic sensibility is spot on in this often bitter but ultimately redeeming story of infidelity and guilt, pain and love. The setting, a wonderfully rich mix of British colonial interests in China, the staggering beauty of this remote region and the savagery of cholera all combine to provide a dynamic backdrop for the story of love gone wrong.
Naomi Watts is marvellous as the wife whose decisions about marriage are driven by family and social pressures, and whose naïve view of her illicit lover Charles (Liev Schreiber) makes her even unhappier than her infidelity. This is the crux of the moral and emotional journey, and Watts does it justice, evolving her character throughout the film. Edward Norton likewise delivers a gripping characterisation as Walter, who confesses at the depths of their joint despair that what he's really angry about is his own folly at loving her so deeply.
Toby Jones does a great job with his role as their neighbour, Waddington, a practiced and stoic bureaucrat in the remote Chinese village where Walter ends up fighting the cholera outbreak, with help from missionary nuns under the charge of their Mother Superior (Diana Rigg - wonderfully sagacious).
Curran has succeeded in conveying the emotional elements of the story without sagging and to maintain a tone of suspense throughout, all built on character. The spectacular, unique locations do no harm, either, the lighting is masterful and Desplat's score is understated but evocative. Satisfying and haunting, The Painted Veil is a film for grown ups who enjoy exploring the human condition.
Email this article
PAINTED VEIL, THE (M)
CAST: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones
PRODUCER: Sara Colleton, Jean-Francois Fonlupt, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Bob Yari
DIRECTOR: John Curran
SCRIPT: Ron Nyswaner (novel by W. Somerset Maugham)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Stuart Dryburgh
EDITOR: Alexandre de Franceschi
MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Juhua Tu
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount/Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: April 24, 2008