DVD: The Painted Veil

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Walter Fane is a shy and emotionally withdrawn doctor who happens to fall in love with Kitty.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 Norton plays the emotionally withdrawn doctor with an cool intensity.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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • steandric May 18, 2007, 3:58 pm

    there’re 2 things you should know, if not pleased be told:

    1. in the preface of the first published copy of the book, maugham wrote specifically about its story: “a woman married to a scientist in hong kong falls in love with an attractive philanderer. when her husband discovers the affair he insists on her accompanying him upon a dangerous mission to an area of the colony infested by cholera, and on that harsh pilgrimage of retribution she learns the difference between illusion and reality, and she progressed from being spoiled and pampered to coming into a mature understanding of herself and the world around her. ”

    both maugham’s book and the adapted script clearly say this is the story of kitty fane (watts), not walter fane (norton). that’s why watts is first listed in the opening credits, as well as the official poster of this film. therefore this film should be described from the viewpoint of its main character kitty fane.

    2. edward norton did not think kitty fane’s is a role that could be played by just about any capable actress. he considered watts the only actress for this role and despite watts’ busy filming schedule, he even put the project on hold for 5 long years until he was able to get watts onboard. he was absolutely right every second of his waiting – watts is the best and only actress to play kitty.