Intelligent scripting, solid thesping and eye-catching location shooting aren’t enough to make a compelling modern film of “The Painted Veil,” W. Somerset Maugham’s yarn about Brits run amok in 1920s China. Well appointed in all respects, this story of a shallow adulteress’s gradual discovery of her starchy husband’s worth while battling a cholera epidemic in a backwater village feels remote and old-school despite a frankness the two previous film versions lacked. Cast and some mainstream critical support could launch the Warner Independent release to a respectable commercial life.
Maugham’s novel, one of his numerous works about Westerners come to grief in the Far East, was published in 1925. MGM’s dim 1934 adaptation, starring Greta Garbo and directed by Richard Boleslavsky, deviated madly from the book, while the studio’s 1957 remake, “The Seventh Sin,” with Eleanor Parker under Ronald Neame’s direction, steered closer to its source but still couldn’t engage certain core issues.
Present scripter Ron Nyswaner makes some solid fundamental decisions, beginning with the telescoping down to the barest minimum the London-set opening, in which pretty but undistinguished middle-class flirt Kitty (Naomi Watts) meets and quickly marries serious-minded bacteriologist Walter Fane (Edward Norton) and sets out with him to his posting in Shanghai.
Not remotely in love with her husband, Kitty quickly launches into a passionate affair with the smooth and married British vice consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), a relationship Kitty takes far too seriously. When Walter finds out, he punishes his wife by maneuvering her into joining him on a mission to a rural area suffering from an unchecked cholera outbreak, a journey that can be interpreted as a quasi-joint suicide.
Arriving in Mei-tan-fu after days of being carried in chairs (the heat and humidity of the verdant, mountainous region is palpable), Walter all but ignores his guilty wife while he goes about his medical research. Kitty is lucky for the companionship of the local British deputy commissioner, Waddington (Toby Jones), one of those droll, dissolute and seedy representatives of distant empire who through the decades enlivened a stream of books from Conrad and Maugham to Waugh and Greene.
In due course, Kitty’s self-centered horizons are enlarged through exposure to the good works of a Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) and a gaggle of French nuns working to help the locals. Kitty also finds she is pregnant, and the way she and Walter deal with the issue of the child’s uncertain paternity provides an interesting breakthrough of their stony stalemate, something the previous film versions were forced to avoid due to conventions of the time.
Maugham focused exclusively on the vicissitudes of the colonials, who presumed they were bringing help, enlightenment and civilization to the citizens of an unruly land he portrayed strictly as a backdrop. Nyswaner, director John Curran and Norton, also aboard as one of the producers and prime movers of the project, have made a point of turning China into more of a character in the piece. This they do in part by bringing to the fore the nationalist, anti-English politics of the time, a movement spurred by a real-life British military massacre of Chinese demonstrators in 1925. Angry peasants combined with the cholera make for a volatile cocktail.
All the same, the film is still dominated by the stuffy, repressed personality of Fane, whose emotional stonewalling of his wife produces a stifling of Kitty’s naturally more vivacious, if common, personality. Despite the extremes of human experience on view, there is a certain blandness to them as they play out, a sensation matched by the eye-catching but picture-postcard-like presentation of the settings (rural scenes were shot in Guangxi province in southern China).
Even the ultra-capable Norton and Watts aren’t fully able to galvanize viewer interest in their narrowly self-absorbed characters. Norton puts on a thin, reedy voice to help express Walter’s insecurity and sexual unassertiveness, all the better to contrast with his resolve once faced with dramatic decisions down the line. Watts holds down the story’s emotional center, but still finds herself more limited in expression than usual, perhaps from the character’s own limitations.
For his part, Jones, who played Truman Capote in “Infamous,” seems to have stepped right out of the pages of the novel as the cheerfully jaded civil servant who enjoys illicit delights with his indulgent Chinese concubine. Schreiber overcomes initial suspicion over his casting as a presumptuous, entitled Brit envoy to deliver the requisite confident manliness to awaken Kitty. Rigg’s wise, self-sacrificing Mother Superior is a far cry from Emma Peel, indeed.
Pic is a pleasure to look at and listen to, thanks to a fine, supple score from Alexandre Desplat.