The Painted Veil tells the time-honored story of boy meets girl, boy impulsively asks girl to marry him, girl reluctantly agrees, boy catches girl cheating, boy sadistically punishes girl by dragging her to the cholera-infested interior of China.
Actually, that’s just the first half of the story, and if that were all there was, I’m not sure I’d recommend the movie. The Painted Veil never quite comes together in a way worthy of its individual talents, but its second half is intermittently forceful enough to redeem it. Based on a novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham, the story is set in the 1920s and focuses on the relationship between British bacteriologist Walter Fane (Edward Norton) and his wife, Kitty (Naomi Watts).
The first third of the movie is simplified and melodramatic, partly because it’s an homage to filmmaking of an earlier period, but also because it has to establish several emotional connections and betrayals in very little time. We’ve barely met the main characters before they’re getting hitched. We do know that the feminist-before-her-time Kitty has been threatened with expulsion from the family dole if she doesn’t find a husband in short order. And we know that Walter is a starchy, reserved Brit in the classical mode, though the only contact he has with Kitty before he rashly proposes to her is at a crowded party, where they share a glance and a dance.
Having married Walter (and then moved with him to Shanghai) sheerly out of fear, Kitty quickly becomes restless and falls into the arms of the more passionate Charlie Townsend (a stock role that mostly wastes the talents of Liev Schreiber). Walter is soon onto the affair (not difficult, since his wife conducts it in their marital bed in broad daylight), and when he volunteers to help study/eradicate a cholera outbreak in a remote part of the country, he uses the moment to give Kitty a chilling ultimatum: she can either go with him or suffer the stigma of being served divorce papers.
In a desperate attempt to improve her fate, Kitty tries to convince Charlie to leave his wife and marry her. His response, in short: “No.” So Kitty packs up and accompanies her husband on a sweltering two-week trip to their new home, a place where Walter plans to, in equal proportion, relieve the suffering of the cholera victims and increase the suffering of his wife, her dainty disposition to be severely tested by germs, solitude, and pointed emotional neglect.
I spent the first 30 minutes wishing that director John Curran (for whom Watts also played an adulterer in We Don’t Live Here Anymore) had cast British actors in the lead roles. Watts and Norton do serviceable work with the accents, but they’re not the most believable Brits. (In contrast, Toby Jones, as Waddington, the only other of their countrymen left in the small village, is a perfect fit. His supporting performance is the movie’s most consistent pleasure.) Once things pick up, though, it’s hard to imagine better choices.
It’s easy to forget that Norton is our best young actor by a good stretch. (Sorry, Leo.) Since his burst of great performances in Rounders, Fight Club, and American History X, he’s settled into long periods of inactivity and the occasional mediocre project (Keeping the Faith, The Italian Job). This quiet vehicle won’t do much to restore his visibility, but he’s brilliant in it. Watts is his equal, but it’s Norton who has the trickier role. The plan he executes to punish his wife for her transgressions is so severe — at times bordering on psychopathic — that it threatens to become ridiculous.
Before it does, though, Norton somehow keeps us tethered to the essential goodness of his character, which allows us, against odds, to believe Watts’ transformation when she begins loving her husband despite his continued mistreatment of her.
For most of its duration, it’s easy to see The Painted Veil as a badly dated story about a man’s right to maniacally punish a woman for her sins. Instead, it somewhat miraculously becomes a moving love story, the most anachronistic aspect of which is how seriously it takes people’s responsibilities to each other. The movie’s climactic moments — which include a few satisfying twists and turns, and a terrific speech by a nun (Diana Rigg) who compares her love with God to an old marriage — make it easier to accept its earlier stretches of undercooked exposition.
(Author’s note: A reader has pointed out that Naomi Watts was born in the UK. This is true, and deserves noting. But she moved to Australia when she was 14, and she doesn’t “read” British. I think my larger point stands — her natural accent is a light Australian one — but I gratefully accept the fact-checking note.)
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
The Painted Veil / John Williams
Film | January 2, 2007 | Comments ()