It has been a while since audiences have been exposed to the sort of epic, period-piece films that David Lean and Merchant-Ivory excelled at. If you haven't realized how much you've missed them, "The Painted Veil" will remind you.
A costume drama in the tradition of "A Passage to India," "Out of Africa," "The English Patient" and "The Wings of the Dove," "The Painted Veil" is a beautifully written, skillfully directed and exquisitely acted tragedy whose deft handling of timeless grown-up themes just might appeal to male audiences as well as female, though the customary drawn-out pacing and the tea-sipping in place of action might mitigate that appeal.
Nevertheless, in the hands of screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and director John Curran, W. Somerset Maugham's Jazz Age novella about betrayal, revenge and redemption in a time of quaint morals has an edgier, more modern sensibility and a fleshed-out cultural and political context that still resonates.
"The Painted Veil" tells the story of a mismatched 1920s British couple who gain fresh perspective on their eroded marriage and their contemptuous opinions of one another when they are confronted by the cultural, political and economic challenges of living in rural China.
Kitty (Naomi Watts) is a beautiful but shallow society woman whose primary interest is in the trappings of 1920s London society. Aging out of the marriage market, bored with her life and longing to escape her domineering mother, Kitty rushes into a hasty marriage with Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a dull and repressed bacteriologist of lower social station whose idealistic feelings for Kitty far exceed hers toward him.
Living in Shanghai, where Walter has a government post, Kitty quickly dispatches her boredom with an affair with a predictably caddish vice consul, Charles Townshend (Liev Schreiber). When he discovers the affair, the brooding Walter, torn between his desire for vengeance and his own self-loathing in the wake of being cuckolded, devises a macabre punishment for them both -- a journey deep into a rural area of mainland China ravaged by a cholera epidemic.
Once there, they discover conditions are more perilous than either had imagined. The extreme conditions make the couple realize how much they need each other to get through whatever short time is left. Working in a local orphanage, Kitty develops a conscience and reassesses her purpose in life. Walter, struggling to end the suffering of the villagers, if not his own, develops a tolerance for people whose actions he cannot comprehend. Together, they grow into a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other, finding redemption before tragedy strikes.
Maugham's novella is told from Kitty's point of view. Wisely, the filmmakers have opened the story up to give equal attention to Walter's character development, as well. The film suffers slightly in the filmmakers' need to rely on exposition to fill in the blanks of the novella, which takes place largely in Kitty's mind. Still, it manages to capture the mood of Maugham's perfectly constructed story.
What the film does best is demonstrate the emotional violence ordinary humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. Kitty and Walter's out-of-proportion reactions to each other's behavior makes them emotionally reckless: They both would rather die than risk intellectual and physical intimacy. Only after being shocked out of their selfish behavior are they able to find compassion and redemption, and their best true selves.
THE PAINTED VEIL
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones and Diana Rigg
DIRECTOR: John Curran
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, violence, disturbing images and brief drug content
THE LOWDOWN: A mismatched husband and wife gain fresh perspective on their eroded marriage while living in rural China.