One of the obvious challenges a filmmaker faces when adapting a complex book is how to manage the book’s many tropes in a two-hour window.
In the case of “The Painted Veil,” this difficulty is further amplified by the generational gap between the original novel and the modern audience. Written in 1925 by Somerset Maugham, the book is grounded in the cultural motifs of its day. From the social politicking of its urbane characters to the revolutionary transformation in China, the novel has simply too many promising and topical themes for one film to explore effectively. Director John Curran’s (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore”) solution to this dilemma is to cover all its bases – but dwell on only one.
The film opens with the introduction of English socialite Kitty (Naomi Watts, “King Kong”) who, like any typical upper-class Victorian young woman, flocks to nightly dinner parties while flashing vacant smiles. When Walter Fane (Edward Norton, “The Illusionist”), a young bacteriologist whom she barely knows, proposes to her, she accepts and takes the opportunity to escape her mother’s critical eye. However, marriage isn’t what she imagined and she soon realizes she doesn’t love her workaholic husband. When she meets debonair Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber, “The Manchurian Candidate”), Kitty is immediately smitten and the two throw themselves into an affair. Inevitably, Walter discovers his wife’s adultery and forces her to accompany him on an expedition to a small Chinese town where an outbreak of cholera has taken place. It’s here, at a remote corner of the world surrounded by disease and political perils, where their love slowly begins to bloom.
Watts gives arguably her best performance as the spiritually reborn Kitty. Even as a spoiled and selfish party girl, we can’t help but find her faults tolerable. When she transforms into a caring and altruistic woman, we rush to forgive her for her past foolishness, convinced the virtues were there all along. Norton’s faux-British accent betrays him, but he excels as the tormented Dr. Fane, whose outward diligence veils an internal affliction.
But the film itself isn’t without its flaws. The numerous issues that Curran ambitiously touches upon saturate the film and build to little more than haphazard embellishments. For instance, the story builds heavily on a tense atmosphere at a time when Western political pressures on a Chinese nationalist regime provoked deeply anti-foreign sentiments. But nothing materializes out of this and the conflict is forgotten as the movie progresses.
In the end, the film’s central theme, an exploration of a love nurtured by time, is executed exceptionally well. Curran meticulously portrays how a callous, often antagonistic relationship can mature into a passionate bond. The story seems to reject the idea of love at first sight by defining it instead as discovering, and eventually embracing others’ attributes and shortcomings.
As Kitty somberly admits, “We were wrong to look for qualities in each other that weren’t there at all.”
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The Painted Veil
At the Michigan Theater