The Painted Veil is my favorite Somerset Maugham novel so I was concerned about how much justice could be done to this hauntingly beautiful story of revenge, love and redemption. Is it possible to take a masterpiece and make a decent film out of it in Hollywood? Apparently yes! Could the movie have been better – absolutely, but does it get the job done well? I’d say yes.
Ed Norton is Walter – a bacteriologist stationed in Shangai. In London he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Kitty (Naomi Watts), hasty marriage and honeymoon in Venice later they are both in China. He is busy – she is bored. And what better way to relieve boredom than an extramarital affair with Charlie – the philandering consular official (Liev Schrieber)? But Walter discovers the affair and decides to volunteer to a cholera stricken province and take Kitty with him. Charlie was never serious anyway so off they go into the jaws of death. In the cholera infested back of beyond Walter and Kitty discover more about each other than they did in many months of marriage. A mutual respect grows into something else but it is a cholera infested region after all. So the tale must have a tragic ending and it does. But it leaves one with a sense of relief as the camera finally moves away from the oppressive dark tones and into light.
The movie has beautiful performances by Ed Norton and Ms. Watts. His serious, then almost sinister, then enlightened Walter is the perfect foil to her luminous, wicked and then vulnerable Kitty. Liev Schrieber is good in the brief role as Charlie and all the supporting cast is very good indeed. The locale is stunning and the mood is brilliantly captured in the dark, the shadows and moments of light.
Are there Hollywood moments? Of course there are, mostly during the growing attraction between the lead pair there are the clichéd moments of “intoxication”, his looking suddenly more attractive and youthful, her moments with the orphanage kids. But none of it is over the top. John Curran retains a hold on the film and the mood it portrays. The movie is full of mood, sensuous beauty and emotion. I enjoyed the film and I think Mr. Maugham is there somewhere nodding his head in approval at a job well done.