Film Review #70: The Painted Veil
Director: John Curran
Cast: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Toby Jones
There’s a scene in The Painted Veil in which you can watch a man think something over and change his mind. As Dr. Walter Fane, bacteriologist attached to England’s Colonial Office in 1920s Shanghai, actor Edward Norton delivers his most economical, resonant performance to date. As Fane and his wife Kitty (Naomi Watts) argue over her affair with Vice-Consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), Kitty persuades him to consider that it’s unreasonable to blame her entirely when he’s insisted on seeing her as other than she is. In an unhurried beat, Norton’s wounded, rational, earnest doctor considers that. Suddenly unsure, he cocks his head, gazes downward, then looks up again – just about three simple moves – then quietly agrees she’s right. The acting is wonderfully deft, and forecasts much of what happens between these mismatched two when they travel far inland to the city of Mei-tan-fu during a cholera epidemic and a wave of anti-Western anger.
Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel of the same name, The Painted Veil has been an ensemble effort from start to finish. In that saga’s bare bones version, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and producer Sara Collecton (Showtime’s Dexter) acquired rights and began adapting Maugham’s book eleven years ago. In 1999 they recruited Norton, already a China enthusiast, who worked on the script and eventually played Fane. He brought on Watts. In early 2005, she landed director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore), an ex-pat New Yorker who started making movies in Australia in 1990. Curran anchored the on-screen story’s anti-Western political unrest, left vague in the novel, to British troops’ actual massacre of Chinese demonstrators in Shanghai in May 1925. Shot on location in Shanghai, in southern Guangxi Province’s green hills along the Li River, and on Beijing sound stages, The Painted Veil is the first Western film co-produced with the Chinese Film Bureau, with a largely Chinese crew.
You don’t have to read Maugham’s relatively short novel to enjoy this satisfying film, but that further illuminates what transformative adaptation from text to screen looks like at its best.
The film radically alters the story’s structure, quickly defining this as much cultural encounter as personal drama. Instead of opening with Kitty’s “startled cry” within her shuttered bedroom – outside, Walter has just turned the locked door’s knob while her lover’s inside with her – the film strands Walter and Kitty in a long shot at a rainy crossroads en route to Mei-tan-fu, helpless without porters, exchanging uncomprehending stares with local workers digging in the muddy hillside. The film adds anti-British gangs who chase Kitty (and teach Walter that he cares to protect her), and expands the figure of Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong) who must juggle warlords, Englishmen, local superstition and cholera. Gone is the novel’s protracted ending – another melodramatic encounter with an even more caddish Charlie, an ocean voyage in which China becomes “unreal,” Kitty’s mother’s death, and Kitty’s planned departure for the Bahamas with her father, where she imagines having a daughter she’ll raise to be independent. The film cuts all this away, assuming today’s audience can immediately envision these characters whole and viable in the Chinese setting. It provides Kitty with a five-year-old son in the London epilogue, relieves her of the novel’s highly compromising friendship with Charlie’s wife, and makes China a living presence instead of a backdrop by turns ornamental and “decadent, dirty and unspeakable.”
Edward Norton has said the producing ensemble sought to “liberate” Walter and Kitty’s story from the novel’s limitations. In the film’s newly opened space, Walter and Kitty arguably grow into love before he dies; in the novel, Kitty emphatically never comes to love him – and arguably couldn’t.
What core remains of Maugham’s novel? First, a string of gem-bright exchanges whose dialogue the screenplay lifts almost verbatim from Maugham’s pages. What spoken words pass between Kitty and Walter, Kitty and Charlie, Kitty and Waddington the Customs officer, and Kitty and the French convent’s Mother Superior play as convincingly or better on-screen as on the page. Second, the seemingly blasé Waddington (Toby Jones) and the patrician Mother Superior (several double takes reveal that’s Diana Rigg of Avengers fame) are characters whose alliance is provocative rather than merely eccentric – and inspired casting. Finally, the filmmakers preserve Maugham’s final judgment of Charlie Townsend through Kitty's eyes as “unimportant.” If anything, the film strengthens this assessment by having Kitty use it as a cooler, reassuring word to her son as the story closes, instead of the hot epithet she throws at Charlie in the book. All along Kitty has pleaded that, compared with such misery surrounding them, her sins are surely minor though the pain she has caused Walter is not. By the film’s end, she’s earned that position.
The Painted Veil also succeeds because its makers overcome several obvious temptations to excess that might doom a hastier project. The film refrains from making Kitty into Eleanor Roosevelt. Her transformation is right-sized – she humbles herself, tries to help the nuns and the orphans because she feels bored and useless, and she gets some unexpected joy for her efforts. Metaphorically, we could say the film never confuses her tinny piano ditties for the orphans with the score’s languid, lavish solos by pianist Lang Lang. This allows Walter and Kitty a brief romantic kindling that’s plausible instead of sentimental.
The filmmakers also wisely refrain from a voice-over narration by Kitty drawn from Maugham’s rendering of her inner thoughts. In sharp contrast to the dialogue, what the novel’s Kitty tells herself or imagines she would like to tell others is sometimes clueless, shallow, unbecoming and frankly racist.
Finally, Curran and company refrain from the epic effect. The Painted Veil does not try to be, say, Lawrence of Arabia. This means when a wife asks her husband to think about something, he can pay attention, and we can pay attention to him. People will watch this more muted film a long time.
The Painted Veil opens in New York on December 20 & goes into wide release in January 2007. This review was written for Stylusmagazine.com & appeared there on 12/20/2006.