Painful, but worth it.

The Painted Veil (2006)


Directed by: John Curran
Starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Diana Rigg, Toby Jones, Anthony Wong Chau Sang

I stumbled upon a random review of this period drama based on the novel (of the same title) by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s one of the rare cases where I haven’t read the book before watching the film so I don’t have any background or grounds for comparison. But the writers of the movie admitted that they have changed the screenplay slightly to make it less bleak, and give more importance to Norton’s character, Dr. Walter Fane.

I had no great expectations for The Painted Veil. I’ve never even heard of it until I saw that obscure review. I assumed it must be one of those boring period romances, which was why it was quickly forgotten. But it’s an Edward Norton vehicle and he has the tendency to shine brilliantly no matter what role he plays so I decided to see it, no matter how boring the theatrical poster looked. I was not disappointed.

The movie starts with a familiar situation: It was 1925, and Kitty (Naomi Watts), though not worried about her biological clock, has everyone in her family urging her to get married. Though she enjoyed her singlehood very much, she bended to pressure and married the guy who just happened to fall for her at the exact moment when she decided that she wanted to get away from her mother. As soon as they married, her husband took her to Shanghai, China where he worked. Dr. Walter Fane was quiet and frank. He didn’t speak unless he had something useful to say and tended to focus a lot on his bacteriology work even while he was at home — the complete opposite of playful, flirtatious Kitty who believed that a man should sweep a woman off her feet with games, parties and jewels to make her fall for him. Predictably, as soon she met Charles Townsend, she found the kind of man that she wanted and started an affair. Her husband finds out and offers her a choice: to come with him to cholera-infested interior China, or to have a messy divorce. He agreed to a quiet divorce only if Charles would promise to marry her and, of course, Charles didn’t. So Kitty bitterly agreed to come with her husband to a small town by the Yangtze after he volunteered to treat the sufferers of the epidemic. Surprisingly, in that disease-ridden but not uninspiring place, in the middle of civil unrest, they found that it was possible to forgive and find love within themselves and in each other.

I’ve never noticed Watts in her movies before but here, she is excellent as Kitty. You want to smack her for being stupid sometimes but she also elicits sympathy. Norton is incredible, as usual. Now I’m curious about Maugham’s book. I might include it in my reading list.

I feel sorry that the film didn’t get the marketing and promotion that it deserved during its initial release. Luckily for us, there are dibidis (DVDs). 🙂

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