A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: John Curran, 2006, China/USA, 125 mins
Cast: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Live Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg
Based on one of Somerset Maugham’s lesser novels – although that hasn’t prevented Hollywood from descending on it three times - The Painted Veil suggests that, despite the death of Ismail Merchant in 2005, the ever polite spirit of the films he made with James Ivory lives on. Set in 1920s China, torn between Nationalists and Communists, the film is centred on the relationship between young English newlyweds Kitty (Watts) and Walter (Norton), a bacteriologist who has taken a posting in Shanghai.
For London socialite Kitty, who appears to have married in haste and is now repenting at leisure, Walter’s quiet, methodical character soon becomes anathema. His visits to her bedroom are excruciating in their timidity, and captured with a simple, effective brevity: Kitty suggest he leaves the light on, but the mischievous glint in her eye fades into disappointment as he reaches over to extinguish it.
Frustrated at home, and further suffocated by the incestuous ex-pat society of Shanghai, Kitty soon falls into an affair with the suave English Vice Consul, Charlie (Schreiber). Discovering her infidelity, Walter offers Kitty a deal: full public disclosure of her actions and divorce – and disgrace – or that she journey with him to a remote village in the throes of a cholera epidemic. The choice is a vicious and calculated one, as exposure to cholera will quite likely be fatal for both of them.
Underwhelming for much of the first act, The Painted Veil begins to find its feet just as Walter and Kitty slowly come to hate each other a little less. Toby Jones is excellent as Waddington, the provincial Deputy Commissioner who has gone native, surrendering to opium and the embraces of a girl whom Kitty perceives to be his Chinese concubine, while Diana Rigg gives an enjoyable, almost unrecognisable turn as mother superior of the convent in which the cholera sufferers are treated. As Kitty becomes less frivolous and Walter less of a monomaniacal prig, so the political situation worsens. But at the point when the story, stutteringly, takes flight, weaknesses in Curran’s direction begin to show through. There is a perfunctory air to everything outside the central plot, the Chinese characters are flimsy to the point of being merely scenery, and a scene in which violence breaks out in the village lacks the conviction necessary to give it the tension it aims for.
At its heart, The Painted Veil contains several interesting themes: ideas about love, marriage and the effects of time on character which are, gratifyingly, not played out in entirely familiar ways. Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay updates certain aspects of Maugham’s novel to reasonable effect, although his divergence from the novel’s ending is a typical bit of Hollywood simplification, as unsatisfactory as it is needless. But Curran’s exploration of these themes is too lengthy and uninspired, with wonderfully acted scenes losing their emotional charge through their being surrounded by such ponderousness. His directing needs a little bit more of Kitty’s impetuousness, you could say, and less of Walter’s reserve.