“The Painted Veil,” adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s novel with added depth by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, is a lovely epic that takes place in China during the 1920s. Starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts as a newly married English couple, the story revolves around their distrust, betrayals and love for each other as well as their experiencing a new and unpredictable country.
Naomi Watts plays Kitty, an upper-class woman whose father thinks she’s nearing spinsterhood and has become tired of supporting her. At a swanky party at her parents’ London home, she’s introduced to Dr. Walter Fane (Norton), a bacteriologist who becomes besotted with Kitty immediately. In town for only a few days before he’s off to Shanghai to work as a doctor and study the cholera, Walter proposes marriage to Kitty.
Although Kitty feels nothing for Walter, she’s anxious to change her scenery and get away from her overbearing and nagging parents. China just might be the place.
Upon their arrival near a remote village, Kitty and Walter are escorted by men carrying them in bamboo chairs to their home, which is inaccessible by any other mode of transportation. Kitty wonders if she’s made a mistake and what kind of a life lies ahead of her.
In what can be considered a dump compared to her lavish home back in London, Kitty is exceedingly bored, watching Walter pound his medical notes onto a typewriter or take off to check on more diseased villagers. When Kitty begins an affair with English Vice Consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), it’s not long before Walter discovers the pair cavorting about in his bed. A threat to expose the affair to Charlie’s wife sends the man out of the country immediately.
The strained relationship between Kitty and Walter brilliantly unfolds in Norton and Watts’ performances. Walter goes from a man head over heels in love to a steely shell of a husband who would rather ignore his wife than speak to her.
Norton, a Yale undergraduate who studied Chinese history, championed for this film to get made for more than seven years and eventually became a producer who pushed until the project was completed.
“This story really hit all the numbers for me,” said Norton, “because these are some of the most challenging issues in life. Ron’s dialogue and his sense of Maugham’s themes were so sophisticated and well done. It was one of those scripts that stayed in my brain.”
Some actors can nail the unyielding and unemotional character perfectly. Others, like Matt Damon’s CIA agent in “The Good Shepherd” miss the boat completely.
In the days after Walter discovers his wife’s affair, one can see the depths of revulsion in Norton’s eyes and almost feel the frost of his demeanor as he walks in Walter’s shoes and moves the couple to Meitanfu, a remote village where the cholera epidemic is spreading quickly.
It’s another Oscar-potential performance for Norton. He was nominated for his first film, “Primal Fear,” (1996) and again for “American History X” (1998).
Out of necessity to survive, Kitty soon finds her own outlets. She spends time with British Deputy Commissioner Waddington, played wonderfully by Toby Jones who starred as Truman Capote in “Infamous,” and his girlfriend (Yu Lin).
Watts is wonderful as her character and Walter begin a dance of regret and forgiveness. Kitty busies herself helping The Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) with orphaned children at a French convent. While she’s there she begins to see Walter as a man of incredible humanity and kindness, and her respect soon grows into a love that is willing to wait until he’s ready to receive it.
Walter and Kitty soon learn they have more than themselves and disease to battle, as politics and a cultural clash between Britain and the Chinese ways bring about strong resistance. Army Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong) is not exactly sure which side is right, but he helps Walter proceed with his work in the middle of the chaos.
In addition to the melodramatic story and good direction by John Curran, “The Painted Veil” is a beautiful film shot on location in Gui Lin, a city in the Guangxi Province in Southern China.
Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh does a marvelous job in highlighting the splendor of the green hills, the serene gorgeousness of the Li River and the inner beauty of complex lives within this wonderful and moving love story.
“The Painted Veil” is playing at La Jolla Village Cinema.