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The Painted Veil

USA/China 2006
Directed by
John Curran
125 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

The Painted Veil

Synopsis: In the mid-1920s recently-wedded husband and wife, Walter and Kitty Fane (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts) travel to rural China. Walter is a doctor and is making the trip to help fight a deadly outbreak of cholera. This is not a typical act of self-sacrifice however. Kitty’s affair with another Englishman, Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), has embittered Walter and his mission is as much about punishing her as helping the Chinese peasants.

John Curran’s previous film, We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), was an intense account of marital estrangement in contemporary American middle-class suburbia. The Painted Veil, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, has similar thematic material but in both content and style is a very different film. It is impressive that a director can handle such huge formal shifts so skilfully and the outcome is one of the finest historical dramas I’ve seen for a long time, one that achieves the rare balance of historical verisimilitude and emotional engagement.

A Chinese-American co-production, with production design and art direction by a Chinese crew, the recreation of rural China in the early 20th century is one of the delights of the film whilst Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography (most people will know his work from The Piano, 1998) particularly on location in Guangxi province in southern China, is superb. Equally, the historical context of the English class system both at home and in its Imperial outposts is judiciously filled in enough for us to understand the setting without overwhelming the real subject of the film, which is the emotional maturation of the callow couple.

Here the performances of Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, both of whom also have producer credits (Watts also starred in and was a co-producer on We Don’t Live Here Anymore) are the backbone of the film. Watts is outstanding in portraying her character’s passage from self-indulgence to self-abnegation whilst Norton, who was the prime mover behind the project, is her equal as a youngish man who overcomes his socially-ordained pride and discovers the commonality of the heart. The balance between the personal suffering of the couple and the wider social crisis in which they find themselves is masterfully handled (my only reservation is the narrative coda which takes us to five years after the main story but that may be excused as a concession to audiences who require narrative closure). In support roles, Toby Jones is wonderful as a grubby British Foreign Office type gone native and audiences of a certain age will appreciate the casting of Diana Rigg as the convent's Mother Superior. The scene in which she discusses marriage with Kitty is one of great poignancy.

Of course credit should also go to Maugham, a master of his craft, for the original story and the fine screenplay by Ron Nyswaner (who wrote Philadelphia, 1993) whilst Alexandre Desplat’s score has been rightly much awarded. However, insofar the director can be held responsible for the success or failure of a film, John Curran has done a superb job. If you like modern historical dramas, particularly of the Anglo stripe, The Painted Veil is a must-see.

FYI: The American-born director made his first feature film, a so-so black comedy, Praise, in 1998 in Australia.




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