The Painted Veil
Made in China under the control of its communist government, co-produced by actors Edward Norton and Naomi Watts—who also star—The Painted Veil is nevertheless a beautiful motion picture about one Western couple's incredible journey into a primitive Chinese village.
The old, diseased town, in a depiction which may have gone unnoticed by Chinese censors, is ruled by faith and force, and its existence is entirely dependent on the rational mind of an arrogant Western scientist played by Mr. Norton, who delivers another knockout performance after his spellbinding title turn in The Illusionist.
Like that movie, The Painted Veil is produced by the Yari Film Group, which lavishes the production with impeccable detail. Based on the 1934 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, written by Ron Nyswaner (who wrote the searing Philadelphia), directed by John Curran and perfectly scored by Alexandre Desplat (The Queen), the movie recreates China in 1925, when cholera is literally causing superstitious villagers to drop dead in the street.
Flashing back to Mr. Norton's awkward bacteriologist falling in love at first sight with the spirited but self-centered Kitty (Watts), it is abundantly clear that they married for the wrong reasons—and it is soon apparent that, somewhere between the accepted marriage proposal and this miserable rural outpost, something horrible happened.
Watts is completely engaging as impetuous Kitty, sauntering around in her party dress, lingering a second too long in a glance toward her father's direction and too insecure to value her assets, let alone love a man for his virtues. She has the tools before she knows how to use them.
As Dr. Walter Fane, Mr. Norton is magnetic, looking upon loose-limbed Kitty with an intense blend of innocence and awakened desire. Posted to Shanghai, he tries unsuccessfully to satiate Kitty—he is too tidy—and she has trouble letting in the light. The poor pair is so close, yet miles apart.
When Kitty inevitably strays, he lets her have it. Punishing the adulterous bride—and himself for having loved her—Dr. Fane travels to a backward but beautiful and mountainous region of the Far East, where he accepts an assignment to treat the cholera epidemic, dragging his cheating Kitty along. Stranded in south China, seemingly doomed to die, Dr. and Mrs. Fane play out the tense, silent disturbance of an unhappy marriage.
Wrecked and ready to succumb to death in China's shrouded, jagged hills, the curtain cascades around them. A gentle Catholic nun (Diana Rigg) mothers the shamed Kitty while a pleasure-seeking Toby Jones (Infamous) and his strange-looking Manchu lover (Yu Lin) offer escape from inner turmoil. As the good Western doctor rightly tries to rehabilitate the ignorant villagers—whose irrational thoughts threaten to wipe out everyone's existence—he is rewarded with loyalty by a young apprentice and aided by a colonel who understands what moves mountains in China. The bodies pile up and the natives grow restless, but man and woman embrace and lift the veil.
Whether Mr. Norton rides horseback across the land or nationalism rises amid marital bitterness, there is Desplat's soft theme set to scenes of peace and quiet. Will the doctor punish the wife with certain death—or will they perish together? Can love, once lost, be regained? Can the woman-child learn to love a man for his honor?
The answers, sometimes tragic, unfold gingerly, like ripples from a boat moving across a river at dawn, as happens in a memorable moment. Actions have consequences, a man's spirit is restored, and a romance is revived, with a serene, lasting effect that holds interest—and almost makes China seem irresistible. Story, music and pictures are smooth and enthralling.
Mr. Norton just gets better, Naomi Watts has finally done something good and with bravura performances from Anthony Wong as a military colonel, Jones as the foreigner, and Miss Rigg as the kindest Mother Superior in decades, The Painted Veil stands beside The Illusionist as one of 2006's grand yet gentle triumphs.