The Painted Veil
, , , ,
125 min.
Release Date
The Painted Veil

Based on the 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the modernist drama The Painted Veil showcases gorgeous scenery and talented actors, yet surprisingly beats with a slow pulse, offering only the faintest signs of life. Opening images of the Chinese landscape recall David Lean romances such as Doctor Zhivago or A Passage to India, yet are deficient of the lovable characters or attention to location that Lean’s films so carefully describe. Director John Curran (of 2004’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore) desperately tries to create a link between the audience, the characters, and the film’s tone. He succeeds in unfolding morose melodramatic characters, even a classic filmic atmosphere, but forgets to make a connection.

Naomi Watts stars as Kitty Garstin, a member of the privileged British bourgeois, who meets Edward Norton’s Dr. Walter Fane at an elitist party. Shortly after, she finds that her wealthy father is pushing for her to marry, as Walter loves her. So what better candidate than he? The two have nothing in common; Kitty is a socialite and Walter studies infectious bacteria—therefore when Kitty begins to have an affair. The only explanation offered is that Kitty wants to make love with the lights on, and Walter is too tempered for that.

Kitty turns to Walter’s friend, politician Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), for her sexual needs, assuming her husband is clueless. Suddenly Walter confronts her with his knowledge of her affair and explains that he’s taking an assignment in China to help fight a deadly cholera outbreak; if she doesn’t accompany him, he will serve her with socially-ruining divorce papers. With no choice, Kitty accompanies her husband on a perilous journey into rough and potentially infectious country. Well aware of the risks to Kitty, without guilt, Walter takes pleasure in her virtual torture. At the same time, he is careful to protect her, hoping that she grows up and becomes as unselfish as he. It’s clear that Walter loves Kitty, though the film never tells us why.

The epidemic runs through a village in the mountains and a contaminated water supply spreads the disease. Walter attempts to improve water conditions by filtering via water irrigation. Kitty sits on the sidelines, watching her husband work, realizing both that there’s no hope for her situation and that Walter, in this setting, proves quite heroic in his role of savior. And as the small Chinese village contemporizes, so does Kitty, realizing her husband has more to offer than commentary on disease.

Shot on location in China, the landscape plays less of a role than it should. The attention paid to misty mountains and green valleys remains brief and almost in addendum to the marriage, except it’s this striking, majestic scenery and its people that, in the end, structures Walter and Kitty’s marriage into a whole, if only for a few succinct scenes. Told with great appreciation for the source material and its mood, The Painted Veil forgets that to become immersed in a place, we must feel transported; seeing as Kitty spends most of her time in her room and not enough of it looking out the window, we too feel trapped, with only two miserable characters to which we can relate.

Most of the story takes place on the faces of Watts and Norton; dialogue is infrequent. Their roles are underacted if compared to the original film. Maugham’s book was previously adapted as a motion picture in 1934 with Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall in the lead roles. Those actors came out of the silent era embodying vast skill in terms of expression without words. Whole conversations could be held inside Garbo’s sad eyes, but those scenes are not possible here, given that Watts and Norton don’t have the same expressionistic acting styles as their predecessors. A period piece without any of the usual flair, there’s nothing explicitly wrong with The Painted Veil, apart from there being nothing spectacular about it either. You’ll feel just as indifferent toward Kitty and Walter as they do toward one another, and the missed opportunity to personify the landscape into one of the film’s most important characters will more thoroughly frustrate.

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