By Heather Huntington
This stab at grand romance fails to satisfy
I don’t know what it is about infectious disease epidemics from the turn of the last century, but they are a favorite plot staple for ill-fated epic love stories. You wouldn’t think coughing blood or death by diarrhea would be particularly romantic. But as it turns out, if you sprinkle a little consumption here and add a dash of cholera there, then blammo--you’re crying your eyes out while people in high necked collars are professing their undying love.
It is into this great tradition that The Painted Veil comes. Originally a novel by W. Somerset Maugham—one of the most popular writers of his time--The Painted Veil is both an adaptation of his book and a remake of an earlier screen version from 1934 starring Greta Garbo. The movie tells the story of Kitty (Naomi Watts), a progressive and independent-minded but spoiled 1920s London society girl who impulsively marries Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a government bacteriologist whom she doesn’t love, in order to get away from her parents. Walter’s work takes them to Shanghai, where Kitty quickly strikes up an adulterous affair with fellow ex-pat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). When Walter discovers the affair, he volunteers for a post in a village deep in the Chinese countryside that is being ravaged by a cholera epidemic. And he is taking Kitty with him.
On first glance, The Painted Veil has the makings of a terrific movie. Great cast, great director, great writer. Cholera, beautiful countryside, British people in fancy 1920s clothes. What’s not to love? Director John Curran, who has previously shown his ability to handle stories of tense interpersonal relationships in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, sets the stage well enough. The sweeping backdrops of rural, mountainous China effectively establish the setting as a character in and of itself in this piece, recalling other successful period romances like The English Patient and The Piano where the strangeness and challenges of the environment bring couples together.
Naomi Watts (King Kong, 21 Grams) does a lovely job as the Kitty Fane, the headstrong beauty of the family who grabs at Walter when she starts to perceive she may be past her prime. Watts pulls off making Kitty likeable despite her character’s selfishness. But it is when we get to Edward Norton that my problems begin.
After his early work in movies like American History X and Fight Club, we all know Edward Norton is a talented man. But romance go-to guy Ralph Fiennes he is not. For starters, I just didn’t buy his English accent, which made it jarring for me every time he spoke and kept taking me out of the believability of the character. Worse than that, though, is that Norton came off like a cold fish. To me, he seemed like a priss so aloof that you don’t blame Kitty for not loving him. The character of Walter Fane should follow in the Heathcliff tradition of romantic antiheroes--characters made by the stolen longing looks that betray the love burning under their angry exteriors. But Walter almost never looks as though he is anything but indifferent to Kitty, even when his actions belie that. At the end, there is a moment when Norton finally turns on the warmth that was so sorely lacking for most of the movie, but it is definitely too little, too late.
The script, too, has its issues. At points, the loyalties of screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) seem torn between whether this story is really about Walter and Kitty or about Walter’s fight to save the town from cholera. The Painted Veil is also talky to the point that characters are repeatedly pontificating on the nature of love instead of actually experiencing it.
The thing is, when you go to see a romance, you go for the fantasy of seeing love take root against adversity. You go for the thrill of experiencing the grand emotions vicariously through the characters. But since the characters of The Painted Veil spend so much time at odds with each other, you come out of the theater left wanting. To me, the movie was almost as cold as Walter's demeanor. And almost as disappointing.
Check out reelz.com's The Painted Veil page for clips from the film and more!