The Painted Veil is a very well made period piece set during a politically tumultuous time in Chinese history.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by acclaimed author W. Somerset Maugham, and had been adapted to the big screen twice before, once in 1934 (starring Great Garbo and Herbert Marshall), and again in 1957 with the film re-named The Seventh Sin (starring Eleanor Parker and Bill Travers). Actor/producer Edward Norton bought the movie rights to the novel, and laboured for years to get the film made.
Set during the 1920’s, the film stars Naomi Watts as Kitty, a spoilt and snobby socialite from a well of family who marries bacteriologist and civil servant Doctor Walter Fey (Edward Norton) to please her parents and up her social status. They both move to Shanghai where Edward is stationed at a Government lab, and Kitty embarks on an affair with British diplomat and womanizer Charles Townsend (Live Schreiber).
When Edward finds out about Kitty’s infidelity, he punishes her by volunteering himself for a town doctor position in a cholera infested village in Mainland China, forcing Kitty to accompany him under the threat that he will divorce her under the grounds of adultery if she refuses. Yet only when they found themselves in a strange during a devastating time do Kitty and Edward finally begin to understand and love each other.
Director John Curran has crafted a visually rich and subtle melodrama, which was mainly shot on location at the Guilin, Lijiang River in China. The Painted Veil is indeed a lavish looking film with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh providing plenty of picturesque imagery of the Chinese countryside. Also, film composer Alexandre Desplat provides a moving score which masterfully backs up the films scenery and emotional undercurrent.
The film is bolstered by the performances of its two lead actors, which is no surprise considering that Norton and Watts are highly talented thespians that have given often powerful performances over the last decade or so. They flesh out there characters rather well, brining depth and humility along with a reserved charm which their British counterparts do so well. The bitterness that their two characters feel for each other is properly conveyed, and the sweet and often humorous courtship that follows also works very well.
However, a big flaw lies in Curran’s inability to let his lead characters love for one another to mature, a move which inevitably comes back to haunt the film during several pivotal scenes that should have been filled with emotion, yet is disappointingly void of feeling.
Supporting roles are filled quite nicely by the likes of Toby Jones, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, a devilishly charming Live Schreiber, and former Avengers TV star Diana Rigg who is exceptional as the Mother Superior of a Catholic run orphanage and hospital.
The Painted Veil is a very good film, but would be much better had the romance of its key characters been given the chance to evolve. This would have drawn the necessary emotional investment from its audience, and would have done wonders for its conclusion.