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The Painted Veil

Norton + Watts + Maugham = Winning Combination

Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel of the same name and directed by John Curran (Praise, We Don't Live Here Anymore), The Painted Veil explores concepts like love, duty, self-discovery, redemption, and the clash between cultures (East vs. West) through a historical melodrama set in 1920s China. And with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts in the lead roles, breathtaking cinematography, and an evocative score, The Painted Veil is a film that’s poignant and provocative in equal measure.

Walter Kane (Edward Norton), a British government researcher/scientist, and his wife Kitty (Naomi Watts), wait in silence besides an unpaved road in China. Walter has volunteered to run a medical clinic in a remote village in China, Mei-tan-fu, suffering from a cholera outbreak. Not surprisingly, Kitty had little interest in leaving Shanghai, and moving to a remote village in China away from the expected amenities is the last thing she wants. The choice was Walter’s. Having discovered his wife’s affair with Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber), a British diplomat, Walter gave her an ultimatum, a messy, public divorce or living in Mei-tan-fu as husband and wife.

French Catholic nuns provide Mei-tan-fu with an orphanage, a school, and a rudimentary medical clinic. Walter begins to work at the medical clinic. Kitty and Walter’s neighbor, Waddington (Toby Jones), a British official assigned to Mei-tan-fu, takes an interest in the couple, slowly discovering the reasons for their frigid relationship. As the cholera epidemic continues, Walter is forced to work with Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong), a representative from the Nationalist government. Even as Walter begins to see the wisdom in accommodating his plans with cultural preconceptions, xenophobic sentiment begins to rise in the village.

Ron Nyswaner’s (Philadelphia, Gross Anatomy), The Painted Veil adaptation subtly explores the devastating consequences of infidelity and the possibility, however remote, of reconciliation. Except that in Walter and Kitty’s case, that love never existed. Walter marries Kitty for companionship and intimacy; Kitty marries Walter to escape her family and social pressures to marry into middle-class domesticity. But The Painted Veil resonates emotionally all the more because the romance unfolds during an era of rapid change when the West attempted to spread Western ideals of progress and modernity through “benevolent colonialism”. Whatever its merits, Walter’s personal journey involves accommodating and adapting himself to the local Chinese customs and beliefs while Walter’s efforts on behalf of the village spur Kitty into a path of self-discovery through selflessness.

Whatever the directorial credit might say, Edward Norton is really the creative force behind The Painted Veil. Norton acted as a de facto executive producer on the movie, supervising script revisions with Ron Nyswaner. Norton, who studied Chinese history at Yale, helped to give The Painted Veil a deeper historical context absent in Maugham’s novel. Norton also helped to secure financing for the production (an arduous process that took several years) and was instrumental in convincing Naomi Watts to take the co-lead role (she rejected the role the first time) immediately after she completed the leading role in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Watts is as good here as she’s ever been (and she’s a brunette too).

Some qualifications should be noted though, though. As an adaptation of a novel written eighty years ago, The Painted Veil retains many traditional storytelling elements that were conventional then and seem clichéd now. The Painted Veil also unfolds at a leisurely pace will make it of limited interest to many moviegoers. Waiting to see the movie until it’s out on DVD, though, would do Stuart Dryburgh’s (The Piano) stunning cinematography a disservice. Dryburgh fully utilizes the Chinese countryside to create vibrant, painterly imagery that’ll be diminished on a television screen. Adding credible, convincing turns by Norton, Watts, and the rest of the cast, Alexandre Desplat’s superlative score (aided by pianist Lang Lang), and an absorbing storyline to Dryburgh’s cinematography and The Painted Veil proves once again that old school storytelling beats new school storytelling (almost) every time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars