"... the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding." -- W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil
If you want to set out to make a period drama set in China in the 1920s, it's only natural that the source material should be a work by William Somerset Maugham, whose simple direct prose and uncanny talent for telling tales of less-than-perfect characters without resorting to preachiness or melodrama made him the most famous and highly paid writer of the 1930s. The Painted Veil, helmed by John Curran and starring Naomi Watts as unhappy, solipsistic socialite Kitty Fane and Edward Norton as her stern and unforgiving husband, Walter, takes us from London to Hong Kong to the remote outreaches of a Chinese village beset by a cholera epidemic, in this bittersweet tale of love and duty. We first meet the Fanes as they are dropped off at a crossroads in the remote Chinese countryside. They wait in the sweltering heat for an interminably long time, completely ignoring each other as they sit on their pile of trunks and suitcases. Eventually, they are picked up by a group of chair-bearing Chinese who are to transport them by foot to their destination. It soon becomes apparent that Walter is not only completely without concern for his wife's comfort in their travels, he is going out of his way to increase her discomfort at every turn. Why is this man, so genteel in appearance, determined to make his wife miserable? We flashback from there to learn why.
The film's opening isn't really necessary other than for the purpose of showing off impressive cinematography we're going to see later in the story; Curran could have started the story at the point at which the flashback begins without losing anything, but perhaps he wanted to knock the viewer flat with the cinematography and pique their interest as to why this unhappy couple became so unhappy.
The flashback gets us into the meat of the story: We meet Kitty as she wanders, languid and bored, through a party at her parents' home. Walter, a doctor on leave from his post in Hong Kong, is in London for the season, and is immediately entranced by her translucent beauty. The next day he shows up at the family's door, and before you know it, Walter is professing his love for Kitty and asking her to marry him and go to Hong Kong. If he'd caught her on a better day, Kitty likely would have politely declined his offer, as she had all the other suitors who had asked for her hand in the several years since she "came out."
As it happens, though, Kitty was bored just then with her parents breathing down her neck about her making a marriage and her mother's complaining about her father having to support her, and on top of that, her younger and less attractive sister had just become betrothed in a brilliant match. Under the weight of these circumstances, Kitty accepts Walter's offer to escape her parents for what she imagines to be a more thrilling life in Hong Kong -- and we, therefore, get to sit back and enjoy the push and pull of Kitty and Walter's relationship. When Kitty decides to assuage the boredom of her new life and social status as a doctor's wife in Hong Kong with an affair with Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), a dashing-but-dastardly government official, the story evolves into an exploration of the meanings of love and duty, as seen through these morally complex, complicated characters.
The film is visually lovely, with lots of wide, lush shots of rice fields surrounded by forbidding mountain peaks, and gorgeous period costume design. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) paints a luscious watercolor palette of wide, expansive shots that sweep you away into the time and place of the story.
Scribe Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) takes some minor liberties with Maugham's tale; there is a layer of political intrigue around the Chinese revolution that isn't alluded to in the book at all (which is one of the more interesting aspects of the book actually --that Maugham, who spent so much his life traveling around that region during this pivotal time in its history, should make the deliberate literary choice to focus on his characters to the exclusion of the history swirling around them) .
Watts and Norton buoy the script in the places where it sags and downplay the tragic melodrama quite well. This is the first role since American History X where Norton really shines (although he came close in The Illusionist), perhaps in part because the role suits him well. He's quite good here at playing morally self-righteous, proud husband who can't quite forgive himself for loving Kitty, and Watts seems perfectly delighted to be back on the set of an indie film, revealing the subtle nuances of Kitty's character slowly and with relish.
Norton and Watts, who produced and co-produced, respectively, were already attached to the film when Curran was signed to the project, so we can't give him credit for casting them, but he does, perhaps, deserve some credit for their beautifully restrained performances. Watts, Curran said in a press conference about the film, was already interested in the material at the time they worked together on We Don't Live Here Anymore, and her attachment to the character of Kitty is reflected in the focus she brings to the role.
The ending of the film is considerably more melodramatic than the book, giving Kitty a completely different emotional arc than that which she has in Maugham's novel. The theme of the movie (as emphasized by the ads: "Sometimes the greatest journey ... is between two people") plants the film's focus squarely on the relationship between Kitty and Walter, whereas in the book is it much more about Kitty's relationship with herself, her reconciliation of her own sense of self-worth as molded by her socialite mother, who only valued her for her potential to score a brilliant marriage, and how that shaped her willingness to allow herself to be debased by her relationship with Townsend. Kitty's arc in the book does not end with Walter, but with the inner peace she finally finds within herself -- which personally, I find considerably more satisfying -- even it if doesn't make for quite so romantic and satisfying a movie. Nonetheless, it spite of its toe-dipping into the murky pond of melodrama toward the end, The Painted Veil satisfies overall as an intelligent and bittersweet tale of romance, loss and redemption.