The Painted Veil

December, 2006, Drama

1n 1934, Gretta Garbo appeared in an adaptation of this novel by W. Somerset Maugham with co-stars George Brent and Herbert Marshall. More than seven decades later, Naomi Watts, Ed Norton & Liev Schreiber provide  fresh interpretations of the characters in that earlier film with surprising respect for the era and ethos involved in Maugham’s story of sin and redemption. Working in quietly assured confidence, director John Curran and his unusually accomplished leads have fashioned an intelligent movie which employs its exotic Chinese locales to wondrous effect as it examines the transformation of a husband and wife whose marriage seems hopelessly doomed. Like The Illusionist, (Norton’s previous film, released this summer) Veil reminds audiences of an earlier period in Hollywood filmmaking, when subtlety of expression and modesty of purpose were more highly valued.  Both movies are thus a bit “out of time” and among the films of 2006 that deserve the attention and recognition they’ve received.

Norton plays Dr. Walter Fane, a Shanghai-based British physican/epidemiologist who returns to London on leave where he meets Kitty, a shallow young woman with whom he’s instantly smitten. He proposes, convinced he can gradually win her affection and she impulsively accepts, believing that marriage to this awkwardly inarticulate doctor offers her the best chance to escape the prim, unappealing confines of her upper-class family. But once ensconced in Walter’s pristine Shanghi home, she drifts, (more out of boredom than passion) into an adulterous affair with Charlie Townsend, (Schreiber) a career diplomat attached to The British Consulate. When he discovers his wife’s infidelity, Walter insists that she accompany him to a remote Chinese village suffering an outbreak of cholera, a decision that punishes her infidelity while demonstrating his perverse sense of honor. But confronted with the appalling conditions they encounter in dealing with the ravages of the disease’s highly infectious character, their antipathy for each other gradually gives way; first to mutual respect, then admiration and finally abiding affection, a process of discovery which only heightens the pain that arises when the epidemic threatens to once again drive them apart…

In adapting Maugham’s 1925 chestnut for current audiences, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, (an Oscar winner for the script of Phildelphia) tweaks the novelist’s tale to provide some decidedly contemporary observations about the role of colonialism and the missionaries who often proselytize in its wake. Diana Rigg, (The Avenger’s Emma Peel & one-time Bond consort in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) personifies the latter; as a nun who runs an impoverished orphanage/school in the village, she sports a starched wimple which frames a face as dark and deeply lined as a sun-dried prune. Ms. Rigg provides a wonderful interpretation of a character that has long since abandoned school-girl enthusiasm for religious life and settled into an understanding of her vocation which provides a more nuanced - - and highly candid - - view of her relationship with the divine. In a few brief scenes, this often-overlooked actress slyly captures the nuances of Nyswaner’s idiosyncratic screenplay.

But The Painted Veil is a period romance, (something an earlier time would have dismissively referred to as “a woman’s picture”) so this love story’s success rides or falls on the attractions of Walter and Kitty, two personalities as initially unappealing as can possibly be imagined. Yet under Watts’ patient handling, Kitty evolves from whiney venality to resolute depth as she first understands, then accepts her own limitations while realizing the virtues of others. Like all fine performances, it’s best appreciated in retrospect; Kitty’s metamorphosis lingers long after you’ve left the theater. At 38, this British-born actress whose remarkably delicate features allow her to play ingénues half her age, has infused previous characters, ranging from frivolous (King Kong) to wrenchingly sober (21 Grams, Mulholland Drive) with what appears to be effortless ease. Is there any type of material she can’t handle?

For his part, Ed Norton’s insufferably self-righteous Walter turns from loathsome frog to handsome-if-prickly prince as he recklessly ignores his own health to seek practical solutions, (proper burial, clean drinking water, etc.) to the epidemic. This still-youthful actor has demonstrated, (ever since his film debut as the demonically clever psychopath in Primal Fear) an enormous capacity for wordlessly conveying the powerful undertow of suppressed emotions. As his Walter opens up, via a series of otherwise unexceptional incidents, Norton offers facets of this emotionally wounded doctor not readily apparent in the cold rationality of the film’s early scenes. Like his co-star, Norton doesn’t rush this transformation; his unassuming heroism co-exists side by side with an imperious style that intimidates even as it serves the needs of others. Throughout, Norton resists the temptation to play Walter as a man to be liked rather than admired; the actor revives the notion of male lead as man of honor, reminiscent of Lawrence Oliver’s Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Most interestingly, Norton provides the exchanges between Walter and his increasingly self-confident wife with a sense of what it would take, in both affection and patience, to pry a bit of self-deprecating humor out of this noble but proud-fully reserved man. The performance is a nifty blend of charisma and nuance, turning what could easily have been a caricature into a memorable portrait.

Is there another Hollywood actor who could play Walter? Is there anyone else who’d want to, since it requires the willingness to play an essentially unappealing, standoffish hero? Like Leonardo DiCaprio, a contemporary of Norton’s who’s also appeared in two widely-recognized movies this year, (The Departed & Blood Diamond) Norton’s performance here and in The Illusionist mark a transition from twenty-something roles to those requiring more mature characters. But there’s a significant difference between the skill-sets of these two; DiCaprio quite credibly plays his characters, while Norton becomes his. Even at this relatively early stage in his career, Norton promises to join the ranks of those artists who have that capacity, like Gene Hackman, Robert Duval and Robert DeNiro. DiCaprio seems destined, like Tom Cruise, to simply remain a star. 

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh utilizes the film’s lush Chinese locations well, but the performances of Veil’s Chinese cast members often paint an unintentionally patronizing portrait of the villagers and soldiers who benefit from Walter’s presence. While there’s a passing suggestion of social and geopolitical commentary here, Veil will ultimately appeal to those who find, in the quiet attention paid to period detail  and the deliberately restrained parsing of its muted love story, remnants of films from long ago. 

Welcome to an impressively realized excursion into movie nostalgia.


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