The Painted Veil, based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel of the same name, is the kind of movie the Merchant/Ivory folks would have made about 15 years ago. That’s not a knock on either the type of period dramas that Merchant/Ivory produced in their heyday or this particular type of slow burning film that stars Edward Norton and Naomi Watts as a pair of displaced and mismatched lovers in 1920s China.
As directed by John Curran, the story of bacteriologist Walter Fane (Norton) and the vane yet intelligent socialite Kitty (Watts) is a plodding affair, moving from the swinging nights of Shanghai to a remote Chinese village suffering from a cholera outbreak. There isn’t much to story, which takes its cues from classic Hollywood and staid period pieces.
Walter Fane is a shy and emotionally withdrawn doctor who happens to fall in love with Kitty. Kitty agrees to marry Walter not out of love but out of spite for her mother. If you think that Kitty will eventually have a torid affair leading to a rift between her and Walter you’d be kidding youself. This is sort of paint by numbers storytelling.
Fane takes his wife and their problems to a remote village where he immerses himself into finding a cure for a cholera outbreak and Kitty eventually finds herself as a person while helping out at a local orphanage. Of course, the two eventually rediscover a love for each other they never knew they had.
The success of this movie largely hinges upon the Chinese landscapes and the slender shoulders of Norton and Watts, two surpreme actors at the tops of their games. Their chemistry together keeps the whole thing together. Norton plays the emotionally withdrawn doctor with an cool intensity. Their is a glint in his eyes when he refalls in love with Kitty after watching her play piano for the first time. The scene doesn’t seem forced mostly because Norton is the finest actor of his generation. A movie like this only serves to remind audiences of that.
Watts for her part plays Kitty as a strong willed, independent woman. It’s a role she delves into and makes it her own, even if it is a role that could be played by just about any capable actress.
Though The Painted Veil isn’t for anyone, mainly those raised on the frenetic films of today, it’s a nice place to start before diving head first into the period dramas and films of yesteryear.