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The relationship at the center of The Painted Veil is a more conventional, if no less destructive, formula for unhappiness: the loveless marriage. Kitty and Walter Fane (Naomi Watts and Edward Norton) have chosen each other for rather different reasons—he for love and she out of desperation. But the rules that enforced upper-crust decorum in London no longer apply in colonial-era China, where Kitty and Walter can express their contempt for each other and possibly overcome it.
The film opens in 1925 on foggy Shanghai harbor, where the couple is arriving from Britain. Then the story reels briefly back home, to explain how the Fanes came to undertake this journey, one typical of the Brits-abroad novels of W. Somerset Maugham. Director John Curran’s version of The Painted Veil is the third filming of Maugham’s book, which has previously attracted such notable performers as Greta Garbo. This version was co-produced by Norton, who developed the project for the better part of decade, but turns out to be primarily a showcase for Watts, who signed on later as a producer and star.
Ron Nyswaner’s script sketches the courtship in a few quick scenes, and the arguments for the couple’s union can be reduced to two lines. Stiff, serious bacteriologist Walter meets socialite Kitty at a party and is quick to propose, adding this unpromising pitch: “I think I improve greatly upon acquaintance.” But the remark that persuades Kitty to wed comes not from her suitor but from her mother, who is planning younger daughter Doris’ nuptials. “I gave up on Kitty ages ago,” the young woman overhears, and the marriage is assured.
Cut to Shanghai, where Kitty is beguiled by Chinese opera—and by the married British diplomat who playfully explains it to her. Soon Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) and Kitty have begun an affair, which ends with two pronouncements from Walter: He knows about her adultery, and Kitty will either accompany him to a cholera-ravaged backwater or face immediate divorce. The retribution begins with a punishing overland trek to the village, where Walter clearly plans for Kitty to suffer, if perhaps only psychologically. The mountainous landscape is lovely, but the village is threatening, both politically and bacterially.
In the village, where Walter both researches and treats the epidemic, Kitty is even more neglected than in Shanghai. Her only hope for redemption, and escape from crushing boredom, is to determine how to be helpful. Since this is a nonrevisionist adaptation of an imperialist-era British fiction, there are no significant Chinese characters. (Journeyman Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong has a small role as a local army officer.) But there is an orphanage run by English- and French-speaking nuns (the mother superior is one-time leather-jumpsuited Avengers star Diana Rigg) where Kitty can be reunited with one of her few interests: the piano. And local British consul Waddington (Toby Jones), who lives with a Chinese beauty who shares his interest in opium, is available to tutor Kitty and Walter in pleasure, should they ever cease their hostilities and develop a long-delayed erotic bond.
If the film carefully documents Walter’s battle against cholera—closing contaminated wells, building a makeshift pumping system, and such—it doesn’t offer a full emotional account of the dour researcher. Norton has some chilling scenes, notably the one in which he reveals his knowledge of his wife’s affair, but the film belongs to Watts. Her Kitty is the character who receives a moral education, moving from frivolous self-absorption to adult responsibility. It’s a storyline that could be deemed classic or merely old-fashioned, but Watts’ intensity—along with the modern production values and Alexandre Desplat’s post-minimalist score—rescues The Painted Veil from the category of well-simulated antique.