The Painted Veil
They say true love never
runs smooth, but it is rare that it runs quite so roughly as it does in this
update of the classic W. Somerset Maugham novel (which was previously filmed
with Greta Garbo in 1934).
The storyline is completely
old-fashioned and embraces its literary pedigree like a Merchant/Ivory film.
Essentially it goes like this. In the 1920s an upper-class doctor
marries a spoiled heiress he barely knows. He is emotionally remote
and she has an affair. The exposure of the infidelity explodes what
little connection they had and in a fit of spite and hatred, he forces them
into a hellish situation -- caring for a small Chinese town which is being
ravaged by cholera. Only there, in the midst of all this death, can
they find each other, but is it too late?
The Painted Veil has
all of the needed ingredients for a classic literary conundrum; sex,
betrayal, death, illness, beautiful scenery, devastating poverty,
repression, drugs, misunderstanding, religious doubt, colonization...
Watts does an incredible
job here, her best work in a while now. Her character of Kitty
grows subtly, slowly over the course of the film; going from feeling disdain
towards him to anger then hatred to finally gaining a grudging respect.
Watts plays each emotion spot on, her style is slightly minimalist and at
the same time shattering.
Norton's role, through
necessity, is much more inscrutable. It is rare that he is allowed to
show any emotions -- he is so repressed that only bitterness and rage ever
really bubble up to the top through the film. Towards the end he is
allowed to thaw a bit, but you still never totally capture the feeling of
the love which he insists he once (and may again) feel. Therefore
Norton, a spectacularly emotional actor, does not get to use all of his
talents. It seems a bit of a waste, though he seems incapable of
giving a bad performance you keep thinking he could do more with it if he
weren't so tightly harnessed in by the character.
There are some nicely
modulated supporting roles. Toby Jones (Infamous) has a quick
wit and charmingly comfortable world view as a fellow missionary who lives
next to the couple with a Chinese lover. Diana Rigg (Diana Rigg!
Nice to see Miss Peel working again though you'd never recognize her) also
has some meaty scenes as a surprisingly-cynical-but-understanding local
The Chinese townspeople are
treated a little less fairly, though. Even though it is clear that the
doctor is trying to help the people and the locals in the hospital seem to
worship him, the rest of the townspeople distrust him and fight his every
move simply because he is a foreigner. Yes, some of the lifestyle
changes he forces are inconvenient, but if his Chinese co-workers, who
obviously understand what he is doing, would just explain the reasons for
his choices then maybe they would understand.
In fact, this pretty much
is the main problem with the whole film -- and the source material as well.
With all of the death and misery which are visited on this small town, the
petty problems of a well-off and spiteful doctor and his spoiled and
pampered wife seem beside the point.
However, that is the story
we are being told and it is told extremely well. Director John Curran
(We Don't Live Here Anymore) obviously has a firm grasp on marital
trauma and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) has a demonstrated
empathy for people trying to survive an epidemic. The mixture of the
arty and the slick also works surprisingly well, giving this old story a
little more life, yet again. (12/06)
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Posted: December 7, 2006.