© 2007 Ray Wong
W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel had been made into films twice before actor-producer Edward Norton attempted it one more time. What they've made is a scrumptious, passionate film for the thinking crowd.
Kitty (Watts) is a bored socialite in London who has a romantic notion about marriage. Walter Fane (Norton) is a serious biologist who has been secretly in love with Kitty for years. Before Walter sets sail to Shanghai for a research post, he proposes to Kitty, who promptly laughs him off, because she simply doesn't love him. When Kitty's younger sister announces her wedding plans, out of embarrassment and the desire to move away from her parents, Kitty hastily accepts Walter's proposal.
In Shanghai, the Fanes lead rather separate lives. Walter immerses himself in work and neglects his bored wife. Meanwhile, Kitty falls for married diplomat Charlie Townsend (Schreiber). When Walter finds out about the affair, he gives Kitty an ultimatum: either go with him to a small village in the middle of a cholera epidemic, or face the scandal of a divorce on grounds of infidelity. Kitty has no choice but follow her husband.
Once at the village, Walter devotes all his time to his work, trying to find ways to contain the disease. His contempt for his wife is evident. Kitty befriends a former British commissioner, Waddington (Jones), a hedonistic man who serves as her only link to the world she once knew. Eventually, Walter and Kitty get to know each other better, and grow to care about each other while facing the horrific epidemic and the turbulent political climate in China.
Naomi Watts (King Kong) is completely believable as the complex Kitty, and she goes through a wide range of emotions and growth with conviction. In the beginning, she's naive, selfish, and confused. By the end she's mature and responsible and loving. The transformation is natural and she does a fine job letting us see deep into her character's soul. Edward Norton (The Illusionist) has the opposite challenge. His character starts off as being serious, arrogant, and dispassionate. We can empathize with Kitty's straying, given how little in common they have. By the end, Norton has given us a warm and great, altruistic man, and we can see how Kitty would fall deeply in love with him by then.
The supporting cast is superb. Toby Jones (Infamous) plays Waddington with humor, warmth, and earnestness. We form certain prejudices against his character, but his portrayal ultimately leaves us with the impression that he's a good guy. Dianna Rigg (Heidi) is delightful as Mother Superior of a convent in the village, offering comfort and wisdom to both Kitty and the audiences. And Hong Kong star Anthony Wong has an affecting turn as Colonel Yu, whose skepticism of the "foreigners" turns into genuine admiration.
Writer Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) has done a good job adapting the novel. He expands the cultural, social, and political elements of the story while keeping the focus on the relationship between the two leads. The historical backdrop and the cultural aspects of the story are fascinating. What transpires is a rich, multilayered character-driven story that feels real and relevant. The dialogue is sparse but insightful, the relationships between these characters are complex and flawed, and the themes and subtexts are moving.
Director John Curran (They Don't Live Here Anymore) has a grand vision for this film. The sets, the costumes, the production designs are spot on. The Painted Veil is also one of the few recent American films actually shot on location in China, and that gives the film a marvelous realism. Stuart Dryburgh's (The Beautiful Country) cinematography is gorgeous -- a definite feast for the eye. And Alexandre Desplat's (The Queen) scrumptious score complements the film perfectly, giving it a romantic yet despondent feel.
With its delicate production, stellar performances, deft direction, a smart script, and a poignant ending, The Painted Veil harks back to the golden days of Hollywood. It is one of these rare, old-fashioned romantic dramas that delight the senses and nurture the hearts and minds.
Stars: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Bin Wu, Toby Jones, Dianna Rigg, Gesang Meiduo, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang
Director: John Curran
Writer: Ron Nyswaner (based on novel by W. Somerset Maugham)
Distributor: Warners Independent Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content
Running Time: 120 minutes
Script – 8
Performance – 9
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 8.2 out of 10