The Painted Veil

The Contenders

Release: Dec. 20

Distributor: Warner Independent Pictures

Oscar Alum: David Lee (sound, “The Matrix”)

Torturous love stories about foreigners in exotic lands have a history of being popular among kudos voters. Prior picture winners such as “Out of Africa” and “The English Patient” saw multiple nominations in major and below-the-line categories — 11 and 12 nods, respectively.

Shot entirely in China, Somerset Maugham adaptation “The Painted Veil,” in essence, falls into this Acad-beloved category. One of the few Western pics to qualify as a Chinese co-production, it tapped the country’s stages and locations to double for 1920s England and serve as the period backdrop for Shanghai and picturesque rural areas.

Among the strongest points of the film is Naomi Watts’ nuanced performance as Kitty, a willful upper-class English woman who marries a boring middle-class bacteriologist (Walter, played by Ed Norton) for all the wrong reasons. When Kitty and Walter move to Shanghai, she promptly begins a love affair with a British diplomat (Liev Schreiber). As an act of vengeance, Walter takes a job in a remote village plagued by cholera and forces Kitty to join him, setting them off on grueling physical and emotional journeys.

Watts, who was Oscar nommed in 2004 for her lead role in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “21 Grams,” subtly lays bare Kitty’s insouciant but vulnerable qualities.

Norton, a longtime collaborator on the project, has the less showy role of the reserved, uncharismatic scientist. He might have a tougher time standing out in a year of big male lead performances.

The December opener has been seen by few so far, and reaction will be directly related to the pic’s nominations potential. Both Norton and Watts are producers on the pic, which could mean they’ll stump passionately for it to get noticed. It paid off for previous Oscar winning thesp-producers such as Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) and Charlize Theron (“Monster”).

It remains to be seen if helmer John Curran can cause a bigger splash with this grander-scale relationship drama than he did with prior Warner Independent Oscar hopeful, 2004’s “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” which also starred Watts.

Oscar nominee Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”), who has toiled on “Veil” for more than a decade, could get attention for his adapted screenplay.

Period pics are usually a natural fit for crafts category nods. Potentials include cinematography, by Oscar nominee Stuart Dryburgh (“The Piano”), and costumes, which were overseen by two-time Oscar nominee Ruth Myers (“Emma,” “The Addams Family”). French composer Alexandre Desplat, who also scored 2006 Oscar contender “The Queen,” could see some love this year, too.

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