The Painted Veil (2006) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images, and brief drug content
Running Time: 125 min.

Cast: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg, Anthony Wong
Director: John Curran
Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner (based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham)
Review published January 20, 2007

William Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name gets the big screen treatment for the third time, and as they often say with "third times", it proves to be the charm.   Although the adaptation by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, Mrs. Soffel) takes artistic liberties with the original story (mostly in the changes in the relationship between the two main characters), the film still emerges as an elegant and beautifully-told period romance on its own.  Though it will most likely be largely ignored for other films in terms of accolades, it is, in my opinion, the best film I've seen in 2006.

Set in the 1920s, The Painted Veil tells about a period in the life of Kitty (Watts, King Kong), a Londoner who constantly is feeling pressured by her family to get married and leave the house, now that she's getting up there in years.  Tired of the harping and feelings of inadequacy, she marries a young doctor of biology named Walter Fane (Norton, The Illusionist), who in the course of courting her, has fallen madly in love.  Kitty doesn't feel the same way, but he is the answer to all that has been bothering her, so she consents to the marriage, eventually leaving with him to China in order for him to continue in his career.  Once there, Kitty engages in an affair with another married British diplomat named Charlie Townsend (Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate), and does feel actual love for the man, but is faced with conflict when Walter finds out about the affair.  Walter gives her an ultimatum: come with him to a poverty-ridden village where a cholera epidemic is killing them at a rapid rate, or get a divorce and be left with the shame and uncertainty that this decision entails.  When Charlie hedges his feelings in the end, the choice is clear, as her apathy turns to misery, and boredom turns to self-discovery,  in one of the most forsaken parts of the world. 

Like many period romances, a great deal of the film's assets reside in the lush cinematography, beautiful environs, and elegant costumes, sumptuously presented by cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh (Aeon Flux, The Recruit).  The score by Alexandre Desplat (The Queen, Firewall) is subtle, but often stirring when the situation calls for, sometimes reminiscent of the work of Philip Glass, especially in his score for another recent Edward Norton vehicle, The Illusionist.  The direction by John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, Praise) is assured, taking modest chances in the overall feel of the piece through the depiction of China as alluring, yet always dangerous.  Nyswaner's script fleshes out the original story to include a backdrop of political unrest, further deepening the sense of urgency and despair that would eventually lead to cracking the protective shell of a guarded man and frustrated woman.  There is an elegance and aesthetic beauty to the film that plays very well to the type of drama that The Painted Veil is -- mysterious, romantic, and pessimistically bleak.  From a craftsmanship standpoint, it's difficult to imagine doing this story more justice.

Of course, most of the accolades will more rightfully go to the main actors, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts (who also receive producer credits), for their brilliant portrayals of two complex, flawed characters who must progress and mature quite substantially, but naturally, in the course of this two hour film.  In both cases, they are award worthy, with Norton showing a deep inner pain and inability to express his true feelings, though we know always know what he's going through, while Watts, removed from the sheltered, superficial life she once lead, finds out there is more to her world than balls and flirtations, as well as more to the essence of love.  Though it's not always easy to see these changes, the characters at the end of the film are quite different than the ones we're introduced to at the beginning, although the world they were born into, as well as the one they are thrust into, always seems to stay the same.

Although marketed as a romance, and it is in some ways, The Painted Veil is more about a deeper sort of feeling that two people can have for one another.  While many love stories never delve much deeper than the initial attraction and union of two people who must overcome obstacles to finally come to equal terms, The Painted Veil differs by starting out with an uneasy union, with characters that have many conflicting feelings for one another at varying times, never quite able to come to a mutual understanding of what they mean to each other.  Looking at it in another way, it could be called an anti-romance, as these characters were never afforded a mutual interest, though they eventually form a bond that connects them far more, and runs much deeper, than in stories that depict common courtship.  Two people can fail so miserably at romance can still find love for one another, though their emotional frustrations prevent them from being able to break through.

The Painted Veil is a beautiful film, visually and spiritually.  Gorgeously presented, emotionally resonant, and superbly constructed, it is a subtle, poignant, and ultimately moving story of two people who start off by giving up on past loves to explore a newfound life, but instead, end up giving past lives in order to explore newfound love.

-- Maugham's novel has been previously adapted in The Painted Veil (1934) and The Seventh Sin (1957).

 Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo