The Painted Veil


Directed by: John Curran
Written by:Ron Nyswaner
Starring: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Live Schreiber, Diana Rigg, Toby Jones
Released: April 24, 2008
Grade: A-

There’s a lot to like about The Painted Veil.  What impressed me most was the complexity of the characters.  It comes as no surprise that this has been adapted from a highly regarded novel.  The late W. Somerset Maugham (The Razor’s Edge) wrote the book and Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) has condensed it into a two hour screenplay.

Set in the 1920s, the story begins in London.  Kitty Garstin (Watts) is a young woman who yearns to escape her overbearing parents.  They want her to find a husband and have threatened to cut her off financially unless she does so soon.  Kitty doesn’t want to marry unless she meets a man that she truly loves.  It sounds like something out of a Jane Austen novel, doesn’t it?

At a social gathering, Kitty meets a scientist named Dr. Walter Fane (Norton).  Fane is smitten with Kitty and the very next day, he asks her to be his wife.  A shocked Kitty sizes up the situation.  She can either marry this man she knows nothing about or risk living the rest of her life with her domineering family.  Kitty takes a chance and accepts his proposal.

In turns out that Kitty and Walter are as different as chalk and cheese.  Walter is a workaholic - obsessed with his study of infectious diseases.  He is always very serious and never seems to have time to do anything fun.  Kitty, on the other hand, loves to socialise.  She tries to get Walter out and about but he is very unwilling.  She feels trapped in a loveless marriage.

In search of something to keep her spirit alive, Kitty has an affair with a high-profile diplomat (Schreiber).  Walter discovers their secret and reacts with bitterness.  Instead of granting her request and giving her a divorce, Walter volunteers their services to help with a cholera outbreak in a remote Chinese village.  They will live in the middle of nowhere and risk their lives to save a small group of non-English speaking strangers.  He wants Kitty to suffer for her infidelity.

Edward Norton and Naomi Watts deliver terrific performances.  You can sense the distain that they have for each other.  You’ll pick this up from the opening scenes which show them travelling through the Chinese countryside.  From the way they speak to each other, you know that things aren’t right.  They are as stubborn as each other and they hate to show any sign of weakness.  It’s a bizarre relationship but fascinating at the same time.

The director of the film is Australian John Curran (Praise).  It was Watts who suggested Curran for the project after they worked together in 2004’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore.  The production team looked all over China to find the right place to film the movie.  After getting all the necessary approvals from the China Film Bureau, they settled on a tiny village called Mei-tan-fu in Southern China.  It’s a beautiful setting. 

It’s taken a long time for The Painted Veil to reach Australia cinemas.  It was released in the United States way back in December 2006.  As a movie soundtrack fan, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the film since it won the Golden Globe for best score (music) in January 2007.  It has finally arrived and the wait has been worth it.