The Painted Veil
Picture poor Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), in a white summer dress, kicking her heels in a Chinese paddy field, wondering what on earth she is doing here.
The answer is banal enough: she married in haste. Not out of love, but peevishness. She knows her very respectable family has already written her off as a lost cause, so she accepts Walter's proposal to prove them wrong. Within weeks she is in Shanghai with her straight-laced husband, looking out at the rain, bored, lonely, and depressed.
From there - and the film wisely makes short work of this - it's but a skip to an adulterous affair with the dapper Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). He's everything Walter is not: witty, self-confident, romantic, and a complete and utter cad. It's a pathetic affair and it ends abruptly when Walter finds out.
And this is where things get interesting:
To Kitty's dismay, neither man is remotely inclined to do what she imagines to be the decent thing (allow her to divorce Walter and remarry Charlie).
On the contrary, Walter (Edward Norton) will divorce her immediately and leave her reputation in ruins unless she sets out with him into the country that very night. There is cholera epidemic inland. He isn't a doctor, but they need help and he can give it. He expects his wife to be right there at his side.
It might not seem like it, but this impulsively noble, altruistic gesture is tantamount to plotting his suicide and her murder, or so Kitty comes to believe.
It's hardly run of the mill fare to come out of Hollywood these days, and there was surprise in some quarters that Warner Bros didn't make more of an Oscar push for it last year (a commercial decision, no doubt).
Scripted by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and directed by John Curran, whose last film, We Don't Live Here Anymore, was also an unusually penetrating portrait of marital collapse (also with Ms. Watts), The Painted Veil lives up to its pedigree.
Naomi Watts is particularly impressive as she reveals a self-centered, frivolous young woman who gradually comes to the painful realization of how superficial she really is. At more or less the same time, she begins to understand and even admire her husband. Finally, with death all around, she falls in love with him.
Movies are supposed to take you on a journey and this one does just that. Watts ensures that the emotional voyage is every bit as compelling as the exotic scenery.
If the film has a weakness, it's in the form of executive producer Edward Norton, who is just too muscular (in a skinny sort of way) to play Maugham's starchy Englishman. Toby Jones (Truman Capote in Infamous) is so good as the only other white man fool enough to stay in situ, you wish he'd been cast in the lead. Of course that film would never have been made.
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