Directed by John Curran (2006)
Starring: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Toby Jones, Liev Schreiber, Anthony Wong Chau Sang
The Painted Veil is a very pretty movie, which probably isn’t the most articulate way to begin this review, but it sure is hard to deny. From costumes (Ruth Myers) to cinematography (Stuart Dryburgh) to score (Alexandre Desplat), it’s pretty astounding. The romantic drama based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham follows the marriage of Walter and Kitty Fane (Norton and Watts), who begin problematically. Walter, a bacteriologist in China, proposes to Kitty after only two meetings. She accepts, only after hearing her mother lament about her spinsterhood, and their marriage proceeds awkwardly to Shanghai. Two years later, Kitty has an affair with Charles Townshend (Schreiber), an important British official stationed in China. Walter uncovers the affair and as revenge takes Kitty into the middle of a cholera epidemic in the country, saying she must go or he will divorce her.
It seemed like this was going to be about distasteful people and the awful things they do to one another. I was also apprehensive that the film would take to blaming the wife for everything, and while Kitty is not innocent in her marriage, she’s also a figure under considerable strain. She is immature, sheltered and spoiled in her upbringing, but is expected to marry as her duty to her family. Walter claims he loves her when all her really knows is that she’s pretty, but carries expectations that she will be the charming, loving housewife. In that dialogue, their marriage is representative of the Problem that Has No Name that Betty Friedan discussed – what happens when a woman is given no expectations besides marriage, then has the expectation of maintaining the emotional bond?
In the country, Kitty is frustrated by how little she can do. Watts is often shot standing in the middle of a room, incapable of accomplishing anything without becoming frustrated by her situation. She goes to their nearest neighbor in the town, the stationed commissioner Waddington (Jones), who lives with his Chinese mistress. How she reacts to their relationship shows just how little she understands romantic love, turning away rather than admitting that their relationship works.
The backdrop of revolutionary China sets the British ex-pat drama under a dangerous air. While Walter attempts to prevent cholera from spreading, he alienates the local Chinese who see him as threatening their livelihood and traditions. He has to work with Colonel Yu (Sang) who is equally as suspicious of Walter’s motives, but reluctantly helps him persuade the locals to follow the scientist’s instructions. I’m not at all familiar with the source material, but based on the Wikipedia it looks like a lot of the changes they made helped develop the story into a mature, modern interpretation.