The Painted Veil

2006, Movie, PG-13, 125 mins


John Curran's pretty melodrama rubs off a few of the barbed edges from W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel about love and infidelity in a time of cholera, but no matter: the centerpiece is Naomi Watts' outstanding portrayal of an adulteress redeemed. The Chinese interior, 1925: British bacteriologist Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) and his attractive wife, Kitty (Watts), arrive in Mei-tan-fu, a small, underdeveloped town decimated by a still-rampant outbreak of cholera. Walter hopes to help control the disease, but flashbacks reveal that Kitty's arrival owes nothing to humanitarian impulses. A frivolous, somewhat shallow society girl, Kitty never made the brilliant match her social-climbing mother (Maggie Steed) counted on. With her sell-by date fast approaching, Kitty agreed to wed the besotted Walter in a moment of panic. That Walter lived and worked in Shanghai, far from her loathsome family, seemed a bonus; but no sooner had Kitty settled into the bustling Chinese city than she realized she'd swapped one prison for another. Trapped in a marriage to a dullard she knew she'd never grow to love, Kitty embarked on a torrid affair with dashing — and very married — British Vice Consul Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber). When Walter discovers his wife's infidelity, he offers her a cruel bargain: He'll agree to a divorce if Charles will leave his upper-crust wife (Juliet Howland) and marry Kitty. If Charles refuses, Kitty must accompany Walter to disease-ridden Mei-tan-fu on an expedition that could easily result in her death. Knowing Townsend's reputation as a faithless womanizer, Walter starts packing her bags before the heartbroken Kitty returns with Charles' predictable answer. Now installed in a humble hillside cabin, Kitty is desperately unhappy, and with only a dissolute fellow Brit (Toby Jones) for company (her disgusted husband will barely condescend to look at her), Kitty even tempts fate by eating raw salads that she knows may very well carry cholera. As Walter bravely battles the disease amid deepening anti-foreign sentiment fomented by Chinese nationalists, Kitty volunteers her time at the local Catholic orphanage run by the imperious Mother Superior (Diana Rigg). Soon, in this small, blighted Chinese town, Kitty discovers the truth of her husband's character and the world outside her own self-centered orbit. Kitty's spiritual journey is shorter than that of Maugham's original heroine, who counted insufferable snobbishness and a nasty racist streak among her shortcomings, but it's still a journey any actress would kill to make. The Painted Veil was adapted to film in 1934 with Greta Garbo, and Watts, pulling out the stops, is a worthy successor. Schreiber makes a superlative cad, but Norton, who seems to be attempting to channel Ralph Fiennes, is an odd casting choice: Words like "tah-mah-toe" tumble a bit clumsily from his mouth. Shot on location in the Chinese countryside, Stuart Dryburgh's beautiful cinematography helps compensate for the inexplicable deletion of far too much of Maugham's delicious, easily adapted dialogue — fine talk that's made him a favorite for movie material since the dawn of talkies. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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