The Painted Veil
by W. Somerset Maugham
"The Painted Veil"
In cinema terms, this is literary excellence at its finest. Adapted from the classic novel by W. Somerset Maugham by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and directed by John Curran, this film tells a love story about a marriage for the wrong reasons and the stages it goes through on a remote mountains in Shanghai, China. This relationship is tested not only in the wake of infidelity but in the exposure to an epidemic of cholera. Can a ravaging disease have a curative effect on damaged hearts?
When Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) saw Kitty (Naomi Watts) for the first time he immediately knew he wanted her as his wife despite the fact that he was below her in the social strata of 1920's England. As a research doctor in biology and disease, he's a mere civil servant, while the glamorous Kitty's a socialite from a family of wealth. Still, stranger pairings have been made, especially when the circumstances dictate.
And so they do, fortuitously for him. Mother is complaining that Kitty is old enough to make singleness a social embarrassment to the family and, as she sees it, the doctor is a good enough catch to maintain social creds. All pressures considered, and admitting no special feelings for Fane outside of his gentleness and timeliness, Kitty agrees.
But, when Kitty meets married Charlie Townsend (Liev Schriber), a man who knows a thing or two about sweeping a lady off her feet, Kitty's love life takes a turn for the better. The doctor, of course, is no dummy and, while avoiding a confrontation, he volunteers for an asignment to a village in Shanghai where the people are being wiped out by cholera, the former doctor along with them. The confrontation between the couple is now joined, as Fane negotiates the terms of a divorce in such a way as to expose his rival's own faithfulness to his wife. The result is her being obliged to join her husband on his plague-ridden adventure.
His treatment of her in the aftermath of her infidelity is one of scorn and disdain. He is distant -- silent, morose, uncommunicative. She remains stoic, enduring it. Finally, venturing out on her own, she discovers the church and the good works it performs for village children, led by a super- realistic Mother Superior town's church (Diana Rigg) and volunteers. There she learns of the work Walter has been doing for the church and the high regard in which he's held.
In the village, the struggle against the disease involves a contest against tradition and spiritual beliefs. With the aid of the local military official, he closes the the main source of water while figuring out how to bring upstream water down in a healthy manner. Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones), the Fanes' neighbor, helps out at every turn, especially in the understanding of local customs and his own erotic liaison.
But Kitty is still starved for personal contact. When she at last asks Walter, "How long are you going to punish me?" he replies that it's himself he's punishing, for making such a grave miscalculation about the possibilities in a marriage with Kitty, and allowing himself such emotional hurt. But this confrontation is a turning point.
The accomplishment here is how Nyswaner not only preserves the dramatic tension between the characters and the transformative issues that bring changes to it, but how he has done it cinematically. The film is beautiful, thanks in large part to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's ("Aeon Flux") low-key textural lighting that relates to the states of mind in the remote and misty landscape. Without reference to Maugham's original work, the film stands on its own with the features of evolving psychological motivation and clarity.
With leads like Watts and Norton, moreover, I'd guess that director Curran's primary concentration was on his sequence of shots, setting up his camera, and sitting back and watching these extraordinary talents show the power and nuance of their art in they delineated their characters.
Ever since I saw what Watts was capable of in "Mulholland Drive" and, again by way of confirmation in "21 Grams" I've considered her among the top 3 female actors of her generation. Besides, she's hot. Consider her almost plain dressware appropriate to the heat of Shanghai which looks sexy and tantalizing on her perfect frame. This babe's got it -- all the way around.
Norton has been a slower sell in terms of relative talent, but after "The Illusionist" this year and now the infallibility of this emotionally restricted bed of nails, I see him taking a place in the high strata of his gender's class of actors.
Toby Jones, stripped of his Capote mask for "Infamous," shows us who he really is. He provides an exceptional presence of intelligence, wit and internal strength in a supporting role that adds a dimension of quality and coloration to the story. Rigg, too, in her mature years and away from the PBS cameras, has found her feature film calling.
Pic will recall the splendid film dramas from classic literary sources brought to the screen by Merchant-Ivory Productions. Fans of their material will never forget their fine "Howards End" and "A Room With a View" as two examples in a long list of distinguished, award-winning movies. I daresay, "The Painted Veil," soaked with similar quality, stands alongside the best of that breed.
~~ Jules Brenner