The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil


Reviewed by: Chris

When I was nearly 18, I married. To the prettiest girl at art college. Lack of confidence vanished with virginity. I loved her with unbearable, blinding intensity. We painted each other with unquenchable desire. What could go wrong?

Our film's title goes back to a stanza:

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"Lift not the painted veil which those who live Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there, And it but mimic all we would believe."

Shelley's poem furnishes the title of Somerset Maugham's oriental love story. That classic, set in the Twenties, has been made into a film three times. The latest comes like five-year incense from Sinophile Edward Norton, with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and producer Sara Colleton.

Two people, whose characters are a million miles apart, wed in London. Then travel to Shanghai. Suddenly they can no longer play the game society has set them. Facing their own true natures is a journey of discovery greater than geographical distance. Visually and emotionally restrained (given the passions and breathtaking scenery involved) The Painted Veil shines with intellectual integrity. If only you can get excited enough about it.

Brilliant bacteriologist Walter Fane (Edward Norton) only occasionally gives way to anything as unscientific as showing feelings. Kitty (Naomi Watts) is warm and natural, but marries Walter more because it seems like a sensible thing to do than for any overriding love. She enjoys tennis and nice things. Walter derides such superficialities. And Walter speaks only when he "has something to say". Kitty has an affair with government official Charlie Townsend, a charming and seductive married man who "made a science of popularity". Walter correctly labels her as stupid to think he wouldn't find out. Their trip to the cholera-infested village of Mei-tan-fu, a professional honour for Walter, becomes his journey of revenge.

Walter's sense of superiority is impenetrable. Even though he vomits at his first sight of suffering, he finds a way to save much of the village from disease. Kitty is meanwhile wasting away through loneliness. They have yet to discover the real vibrancy behind each other's mask. As they attempt to do so, the film challengingly asserts the contradiction of sexual versus spiritual love.

An emotionally unintelligent man discovering the tenderness and complexity of another human being, and a good (yet fairly shallow) woman appreciating her own potential - and the value of another's great mind. But the symbol of the 'veil' goes much further. Norton says he wanted to "lift the veil" on issues facing China in the Twenties. "If you're going to make a film set in China during the period, I think there's got to be a reason for doing it other than the inherent romanticism of the location."

To Kitty, the work of the nuns (headed by Mother Superior Diana Rigg) is laudable, especially with orphans. Walter, on the other hand, points out that they also pay parents for their children so as to indoctrinate them with Catholicism. Every Westerner is a colonialist of some sort, fuelling increasing resentment among the locals. Walter, carrying his torch of medicine rather than the fire of armaments, believes he is 'neutral'. He is somehow 'above' the armed soldiers whom he relies on. Yet his rationalism is shallow, limited to believing that if only people would embrace Western ways they would have it much easier.

Kitty stays with Walter initially out of 'duty' but comes to question it when the Mother Superior says: "Duty is only washing one's hands when they are dirty". The philosophical challenge, echoed from Maugham, is whether duty and love can become one. This is the central tenet of the film. Walter, indubitably, seems to be following a higher 'duty' in saving people from cholera. Yet it is the experiencing of love in one form or another that gives meaning and fulfilment. That 'love' must be genuine but also under the domain of duty - else it leads astray. Walter's initial 'love' is respectful, exact - and only with the lights switched off. Kitty's is that of a gifted dilettante.

The performances are finely chiselled. Watts combines convincing sensuality and tenderness yet still gives her character room to express deep emotion later on. When Walter discovers her sexual liaison with Charlie (played by Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts' real-life partner), he goes into heartless-bastard mode. Norton (who majored in history at Yale) produces a convincing portrait of someone who is sharply intelligent and as precise as a scalpel. His painful awakening to the fact that humans are more than complex microbes is superbly judged. Polar opposites of smooth sleaze-bag Charles and straight-as-a-die Walter are movingly adjudicated by Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones). He has more insight into relationships than the rest of them put together, yet are we misled by his persona? "He is a good man," says the young Chinese woman whom we saw him tussling naked and unashamed with moments earlier.

Going beyond what we believe another to be, whether we put them on a pedestal or in derision, may only be the first stage. Being away from familiar surroundings leaves nothing to fall back on. No painted veil.

This adaptation takes excusable liberties with the plot. It is true to the spirit of Shelley's poem. It is a finely observed colonial-era drama that holds attention with a subdued dignity, quietly resisting the enticement to do a Merchant and Ivory. To the casual viewer it sometimes hangs between wasted opportunity and insipidness. But its themes are lovingly executed with skill and exactitude.

My marriage lasted precisely one year. We both decided to travel. If we had been isolated in a distant country like the protagonists of this film, we may have discovered a more genuine love. Or killed each other. Unlike this sumptuous historical and emotional travelogue, the games we play don't always paint a pretty picture.

Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2007
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A marriage hits the rocks in Shanghai in an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's classic novel.
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Read more The Painted Veil reviews:

Caro Ness ***

Director: John Curran

Writer: Ron Nyswaner, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham

Starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg, Juliet Howland, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Maggie Steed, Lorraine Laurence, Johnny Lee, Li Feng

Year: 2006

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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