Painted Veil, The
Director: John Curran
Cast: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Anthony Wong
Written by Academy Award nominee, Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), and based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, THE PAINTED VEIL follows a bacteriologist Walter and his adulterous wife Kitty who move to a remote Asian village to fight a cholera outbreak. Away from her luxurious past life, Kitty has a spiritual awakening and learns to appreciate and love her husband...
The story is set in 1925. Kitty (NAOMI WATTS) is a spoiled young woman living in London. Facing the social stigma of her younger sister getting engaged first, Kitty quickly marries one of her suitors, Walter (EDWARD NORTON), a boring bacteriologist.
The couple moves to Shanghai where Walter researches ways to control epidemics in Asia. Although Walter is madly in love with Kitty, he finds that the pair has little in common and discovers that Kitty has an adulterous affair with a married diplomat, Charles (LIEV SCHREIBER - Watts' real-life boyfriend). In order to teach his wife a lesson, he volunteers to work in a remote Chinese village where the plague is raging and local warlords are waging battles. Walter threatens Kitty to divorce her stating her infidelity if she does not accompany him to the area. She accepts the offer in order not to spoil her reputation and she feels disappointed when she knows that Charles will not ask for a divorce from his wife.
Living in the village where more and more people die of cholera, Kitty begins to appreciate his husband who gives no regard to his own life for the good of others. She also starts working in an orphanage to help the unfortunate. The hazardous journey indeed brings Walter and Kitty closer. Unfortunately fate intervenes...
Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people... The Painted Veil, which is like an epic poem whispering the meaning of love and meditating on reflection and redemption, deeply touches my heart.
According to a psychologist Hegel, it is likely for self-reflection to take place when one goes out from the immediacy and returns. Kitty is born and raised in a rich English family. She knows more about herself when she moves to a cholera-ridden village where most people cannot speak English. What's more, the China's war-torn interior is much different from London. Being miles from civilization or further temptation, she begins to reflect on her role and gains a better understanding of her husband. When she goes back to London, she is already a mature grown-up who is conscious of what she has been looking for.
The magnificent Quangxi setting (in southern China) is not only breathtaking, but also symbolic. Some hills are farther than the others and their outlines are sometimes blurred by mist. It is just like the distance between Walter and Kitty, who are physically close, but spiritually apart. Through reflection, understanding can be enhanced. Through communication, distance can be shortened. Besides, the dimly-lit room where dead silence often sets in, the contrast between light and shadow and the characters in light-colored costume creates elegance, romance, tension and simplicity. The director successfully provides the audiences with the basics of love. The captivating cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh immeasurably enhances the story and the scenery will surely linger in your mind when you leave the theatre.
The movie has won several awards, one of which is the Golden Globe Best Original Score Award featuring a renowned pianist Lang Lang whose mesmerizing music was in tune with the story told. The haunting song played at the end brings back sweet and bitter snippets of Walter and Kitty's shared life, leaving me speechless.
The charismatic lead performances and the strong supporting cast deserve our applause. Both Edward Norton and Naomi Watts deliver finely nuanced and captivating performances which are close to flawless. There are several zoom shots onto a particular character's face or eyes and you will find that their transfixing expressions can speak.
Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people, yet the distance can be shortened. Reflection is the key. At the end of the movie, Walter and Kitty are physically distant, but spiritually united. That's LOVE! Despite the old-fashioned plot, The Painted Veil is a visually poetic, intelligently adapted, perfectly cast and entertaining romance. This is one of the best epic love stories I have seen in recent years.
Reviewed by: Kenji Chan