Painted Veil, The (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Painted Veil, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, takes viewers on a journey into early 20th century rural China, where a cholera epidemic becomes the backdrop for shifts and growing pains in a fractured marriage. Due in large part to effective acting and a well developed screenplay, the movie provides a twofold source of satisfaction. In addition to developing real, believable characters, The Painted Veil provides an extended glimpse of what China was like during the 1920s. The movie achieves a rare balance for an historical fiction: making use of the backdrop without allowing it to overwhelm the characters and their story. The Painted Veil is a multifaceted motion picture, but the relationship between the protagonists remains the focal point.

The film opens in 1925, with husband and wife Walter and Kitty Fane (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts) in the midst of an arduous journey from Shanghai to a rural village. Walter is a doctor and is making the trip to help fight a deadly outbreak of cholera. His wife is with him reluctantly. Theirs has never been a happy marriage - Walter is not given to displays of affection and is wedded to his work - but her affair with another Englishman, Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), nearly ended it. When he learned of Kitty's infidelity, Walter gave her an ultimatum: accompany him or endure the scandal that would result when he sued her for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Her decision to go left her alone and lonely in a foreign land sharing a house with a husband who will barely acknowledge her.

The Painted Veil is a story of maturation and forgiveness. Both Walter and Kitty share blame for the disastrous state of their marriage but, with the forces that destroyed it removed, they learn to reconnect. Kitty grows up by working with orphans at a local convent and Walter sheds some of his arrogance when he learns that the "Superior British" attitude will not allow him to achieve what he needs to do in order to stop the epidemic. One could view The Painted Veil as an atypical love story. It's about married people who never should have been joined finding common ground.

There's also a more global theme: that of the resentment that can fester when an outsider with good intentions comes into a foreign country and displays an arrogant certainty that he understands what's right. Walter comes to the town with the best intentions, but his methods are deemed unacceptable when he violates the religious beliefs of the natives. Walter only makes headway once he has learned to work with the people not seemingly against them. On the surface, this is a common theme in movies set in the British Colonial era, but director John Curran has commented that he sees it relevant to today's world events.

The performances are excellent. Naomi Watts, fresh from playing King Kong's girlfriend, and Edward Norton share screen time. When the film begins, Watts' Kitty is a self-centered flapper; by the time it ends, she has become more serious and learned responsibility. For Norton's Walter, the challenge is to become more warm and flexible. Watts and Norton achieve the shifts in ways that are consistently credible. Support is provided by Liev Schrieber as Kitty's lover, Toby Jones (Capote in Infamous) as a neighboring Brit in the rural village, and Diana Rigg as the convent's Mother Superior.

The cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh is spectacular. The filmmakers decided on the extraordinary measure of obtaining all the permits to film in China rather than using another country as a stand-in. This becomes the first American-funded movie in countless years to go on location in the country and the authenticity is welcome. Visually, The Painted Veil is stunning and this enhances its emotional content.

The release date indicates possible Oscar aspirations. The film is good enough it some areas to warrant consideration. It's too cerebral for multiplex audiences but should find a home in art houses where viewers are more open to stories in which thoughtful character arcs trump traditional action. A lot takes place during The Painted Veil's two-hour running length, but most of what happens occurs within the hearts and minds of the leads.

Painted Veil, The (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1