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The Painted Veil (8/10)

by Tony Medley

This is a movie for sophisticated adults, those who enjoy a sensitively nuanced story. It’s a long (2 hours), slow, gritty story of adultery, maturation, and romance set in ‘20s China, the third remake of the Somerset Maugham novel.

Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts) is a frivolous beauty quickly courted and wed by research bacteriologist-physician Walter Fane (Edward Norton), who immediately takes her to his job in Shanghai. There she meets Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) who promptly beds her. Walter discovers her infidelity, accepts a position deep in China where there is a horrible outbreak of Cholera, the clear implication being that he wants her to die with him. She has little choice but to accompany him.

That happens in the first half hour. The rest of the movie is the beautiful Kitty’s trying to get along with the deeply hurt and obdurate Walter while they are both combating and fending off cholera in the midst of Chinese political turmoil. While it sounds as if it could be inalterably dreary in other hands, this movie is a winner because of many aspects. First is the script (Ron Nyswaner), which is full of spare but realistic dialogue. Another is the beautiful location in Quangxi province in southern China and the captivating cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh. Even if the script weren’t compelling, the photography would keep you riveted. John Curran directs what could have been dreadful with a deft touch. Finally, the acting of Watts and Norton (both of whom also produced) is first rate, accompanied by equally accomplished performances by Toby Jones as Waddington, the English civil servant in the Chinese village, and Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior of a convent school in the village who takes an interest in Kitty. Norton, who never seems to give anything but an exceptional performance, is a wonder as the cuckold who just can’t come to grips with what his wife has done to him.

Curran has the talent so lacking in modern directors to show romance and passion without nudity. Not only is there not a nipple in sight, there isn’t even any cleavage. Yet he films a love scene that is as full of sexual tension as any you will see in film.

This passed the watch test for me with flying colors, although I wonder how much I was influenced by Watts’ beauty. She’s in almost every scene and is a joy to watch.

In English and Mandarin with subtitles.