The Painted Veil is one of those movies I was interested in, but never made the time to go see. Even with the DVD in hand, I approached the viewing as if it were a chore. Now that I have watched it, I am happy to report that it is a beautifully crafted film that combines a realistic depiction of a relationship with a view of China circa the 1920s, creating a film that is gorgeous to look at and fascinating to watch.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. It is the third filming of the story, previously getting the big screen treatment in 1934 and then again in 1957 (as The Seventh Sin). I have not seen either of those, nor have I read the book, so any comparisons to the source/prior interpretations is a no-go. No matter, the film is strong enough to stand on its own as a highly dramatic film with a well-developed screenplay, fine acting, and gorgeous cinematography.
The story centers on the relationship between Kitty (Naomi Watts) and her husband, Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton). The film begins with their meeting in London, where the proper Doctor courts the more liberated Kitty, and they soon marry. Shortly after the wedding, the new couple relocate to Shanghai, where Dr. Fane, a bacteriologist, was to work on his studies. It is here where the film slows its pace. Up to this point the film seemed to cover a lot of ground in very little time, moving quickly from their initial meeting, to marriage, to the trip to Shanghai. I was not sure I was going to like it. Sure, it was well acted and gorgeous to look at, but the narrative seemed somewhat lacking. That was all about to change as their life in Shanghai settles in.
Walter is married to his work, and Kitty, looking for a stronger emotional bond, finds it in an affair with Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), another official stationed in Shanghai. It is not long before Walter discovers his wife's dalliance, and their relationship takes a turn. The exposure of the affair leads to an ultimatum which takes our unhappily married couple to a small village in the throes of a massive cholera epidemic. It takes the relationship to the next level, an uncomfortable purgatory for both of them.