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The Painted Veil (A PopEntertainment com Movie Review)

The Painted Veil


Starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg, Anthony Wong, Hélène Cardona, Sally Hawkins, Linda Sans, Zoe Telford, Yu Xia and Lu Yin.

Screenplay by Ron Nyswaner.

Directed by John Curran.

Distributed by Warner Independent Pictures. 128 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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 mother superior.

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)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 7, 2006.


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