The Painted Veil marks both the third film adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham short story and a reunion between director John Curran and actress Naomi Watts. Their previous film, We Don't Live Here Anymore, recounted a bitter cycle of adultery and recrimination in a small, modern-day college town. The Painted Veil begins with a similarly cynical view of marriage, placed against the far more exotic backdrop of rural China, riven by disease and political unrest in the 1920s.
One of Curran's first images conveys the culture clash of a quarreling English couple in a vast, ancient land. Like a Magritte painting, a man and a woman stand with backs to the camera, their hats silent but expressive as they ignore each other and are ignored in turn by the lush Chinese countryside. Flashbacks reveal the events that brought them to such emotional and geographic extremes.
On a whim, frivolous young English woman Kitty (Naomi Watts) married earnest Walter Fane (Edward Norton), shortly before he took a job in Shanghai. He's an epidemiologist more comfortable with microbes than human beings, and Kitty's boredom in Shanghai leads her into an affair with a diplomat, played by Liev Schreiber (Watts' off-camera beau). When Walter finds out, he gives Kitty a choice: submit to a scandalous divorce or accompany him to a Chinese village suffering a cholera outbreak. Kitty chooses cholera, perhaps reflecting the limited options for women in the era.
Kitty tries to find herself in the remote outpost while Walter fights the disease, superstitious traditions and rising anti-Western sentiment. The film's tensions cut closer to the bone than the usual straight-laced Merchant-Ivory period piece while conveying more breadth of feeling than Curran's previous film. Norton and especially Watts superbly convey the spouses' contrasting difficulties in expressing themselves. The Painted Veil offers an extremely well-observed portrayal of the dynamics of bad marriages, how warring spouses punish each other and themselves, and how guilt, duty and anger can get inextricably mixed up. It's a sign of how bad things can get between two people that, in a way, cholera turns out to be a blessing in disguise.
The Painted Veil 3 stars. Directed by John Curran. Stars Naomi Watts, Edward Norton. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., Dec. 29. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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