The Painted Veil (2006)
Reviewed on 2008 April 8
This film snuck up on me — despite the credentials of being based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel the thing sounded like “Merchant Ivory goes to Divorce Court” — and yet once I settled in to watch it I had to finish it.
Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) is a bacteriologist, and his life’s dream is halting the spread of infectious disease. It’s his mission, and considering it’s pre-antibiotics 1925, it’s an admirable and often thankless one. He falls in love with the beautiful but shallow Kitty (Naomi Watts), and in temperament they seem completely mismatched, but he prevails upon her to marry him and follow him to Shanghai.
She agrees, but soon gets restless and has an affair with Charlie (Liev Schreiber), another British expatriate that seems more her equal, in both mud-puddle depth and superficial beauty. Walter, of course, finds out. An amateur would have just thrown Kitty out and changed the locks. Walter gives her a “choice”: a messy divorce that will ruin her in her vapid social circle, or coming with him to a remote village in the Chinese countryside where there’s a rampant cholera outbreak.
I will say the movie was a bit slow in places; you can’t watch this when you’re in a hurry, because director John Curran wasn’t. The acting, set design and story pull you in despite the pacing. Norton played a great saccharine, starry-eyed kid-show host in Death to Smoochie and he owned American History X. Here, he played quietly furious and even kept up a credible British accent. (Schreiber and Watts did a good job with the accents too.) Not only that, but we see period costumes, beautiful Chinese countryside, and get to hear the odd bit of music from that era. Shukti wishes she could buy a drink for anyone who can tell her the name of the piece when Kitty wanders into Waddington’s house.
Three chocolate morsels.