Film Review Of The Painted Veil (2006)
Copyright © by Joe
Joe's website: http://thisdistractedglobe.com/
In 1925, British couple Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts) and Dr. Walter Fane
(Edward Norton) travel by sedan chair through interior China. In flashbacks to
London, we learn that Walter is a bacteriologist who runs a government lab in
Shanghai. He woos Kitty, an attractive, but immature girl. She has no romantic
feelings for the serious doctor, but accepts a marriage proposal to get away
from her mother.
In China, Kitty discovers she has little in common with her husband, and
is bored. She has an affair with a married British diplomat (Liev Schreiber).
Walter notifies his wife that he’s volunteered to take over a hospital in a
town overrun by a cholera outbreak on a tributary of the Yangtze River. He’s
aware of her affair, and threatens to divorce her for adultery unless she
By the time they reach the town, the couple is barely speaking. They
befriend the British deputy commissioner (Toby Jones), their last surviving
neighbor. Kitty presumes that Walter could care less whether she lives or dies,
and volunteers at an orphanage run by a French Mother Superior (Diana Rigg). As
Walter works to treat the epidemic, Kitty begins to see how passionate he
actually is. Husband and wife start to fall in love.
Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner had been intrigued by the work of author W.
Somerset Maugham since he’d seen Of
Human Bondage with Bette Davis and Noel Howard as a child. Going through
Maugham’s books, he came to The Painted
Veil. Nyswaner admired the way that story shifted from one about revenge
into one of redemption. He spent three years writing and developing an
adaptation with producer Sara Colleton.
They sent the script to Edward Norton in 1999. Norton – who studied
Chinese history at Yale as an undergrad – was enthusiastic about it. He spent
six months working with Nyswaner making China much more relevant to the story,
and taking the relationship between Walter and Kitty further than Maugham had.
Norton gave the script to Naomi Watts, who also loved it, but Norton couldn’t
attach a director, or work out a schedule to make the film with her.
In 2001, producers Bob Yari and Mark Gordon became involved, along with
Mark Gill, then president of Yari and Gordon’s company. Gill left to become
president of Warner Independent Pictures in 2003, and set the project up at his
new studio. With still no director, Watts recommended John Curran, who had
guided her and Mark Ruffalo to strong performances in We Don’t Live Here Anymore.
In the derby for awards recognition, The
Painted Veil never got out of the gate. The studio claimed that the film’s
lengthy post-production prevented DVD screeners from being sent out with enough
time to build a buzz. Norton attributed the lack of support to the fact that
Mark Gill had been forced out at Warner Independent. His replacement never gave
the film the marketing push that Good
Night, and Good Luck had received, and the movie came and went.
What all this means is that a great film – one of the decade’s best
– hasn’t been seen by many people yet. The
Painted Veil is sophisticated, sensual and haunting in the way the great
romances of the ‘60s and ‘70s were. The decade this film spent headed to the
screen is obvious everywhere you look. This was a real labor of love for those
involved, and I can’t recommend it enough.
The film feels epic, with spectacular vistas filmed in Guilin, along the
Lijiang River. But the storytelling is just as rich in the way it intimately
details the failure, and then redemption of a marriage. Watts and Norton took a
chance playing characters who are not couple of the year material. They may not
be likable at first, but the journey they go on and how they evolve together is
Produced for $19 million, the movie appears four or five times that
amount. Curran and director of photography Stuart Dryburgh frame the most
exquisite widescreen compositions I’ve seen in some time. Selecting
screenshots to post here was a breeze; every other frame in the film looks
The content – China, cholera – may not have appealed to mass
audiences, but the movie resonated with me. Along with a tragic romance, it’s
been a while since I’ve seen a film about colonialism made this beautifully.
Norton and Rigg play idealists who travel to a foreign land hoping to make it
over in the image of their own country. Instead of changing the land, the
characters end up being the ones who change.
Alexandre Desplat received an Academy Award nomination for his elegant musical score, which reminded me of Maurice Jarre throughout. There’s also a dazzling opening credits sequence I expected would be the work of Saul and Elaine Bass; it isn’t, but it has that same level of craftsmanship. Highly recommended, particularly for those who wish David Lean was still alive and making films.
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