×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Painted Veil

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.

With:
Kitty Fane - Naomi Watts Walter Fane - Edward Norton Charlie Townsend - Liev Schreiber Waddington - Toby Jones Mother Superior - Diana Rigg Colonel Yu - Anthony Wong

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.

Popular on Variety

The Painted Veil

U.S.-China

Production: A Warner Independent Pictures release of a Warner Independent Pictures and Bob Yari Prods./the Mark Gordon Co. presentation of a Colleton Co., Class 5 Films, Dragon Studios production, a Warner China Film HG Corp. co-production. Produced by Sarah Colleton, Jean-Francois Fonlupt, Yari, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts. Executive producers, Gordon, John Curran, Antonia Barnard, Ron Nyswaner. Co-producer, Yasmine Golchan. Directed by John Curran. Screenplay, Ron Nyswaner, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Stuart Dryburgh; editor, Alexandre de Franceschi; music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Tu Juhua; art directors, Peta Lawson, Tu Xinran, Mei Kunping Xing Yanrong; set decorator, Lawson; costume designer, Ruth Myers; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS), David Lee; supervising sound editor, Skip Lievsay; re-recording mixers, Lievsay, Derek Vanderhorst, Tim Leblanc; sound designer, Vanderhorst; visual effects, Fuel Intl.; line producer, Antonia Barnard; assistant director, Jason Faulkner; second unit director-camera, John Mahaffie; casting, Ellen Lewis. Reviewed at Raleigh studios, Los Angeles, Dec. 5, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 125 MIN.

With: Kitty Fane - Naomi Watts Walter Fane - Edward Norton Charlie Townsend - Liev Schreiber Waddington - Toby Jones Mother Superior - Diana Rigg Colonel Yu - Anthony Wong

More Film

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez's 'Criminal' Striptease: How 'Hustlers' Landed the Fiona Apple Hit

    Contrary to what you might be expecting, the number of songs by Jennifer Lopez, Lizzo and Cardi B in “Hustlers,” their newly released acting vehicle, adds up to … zero. Meanwhile, the standout music sync in a movie that’s full of them belongs to no less likely a choice than Fiona Apple. The scene in [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8

    'Game of Thrones,' 'Avengers' Win Big at 45th Annual Saturn Awards

    As Jamie Lee Curtis picked up her first trophy ever at the 45th Annual Saturn Awards Friday night, she had a good luck charm on her arm: former manager Chuck Binder, whom she said was the reason she became an actor. “I was in college and had no thought of being an actor,” Curtis told [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star

    Box Office: 'Hustlers' Dances Toward $32 Million Opening Weekend

    “Hustlers” is eyeing the biggest opening weekend ever for STXFilms, following a Friday domestic ticket haul of $13.1 million from 3,250 theaters. If estimates hold, the stripper saga could take home around $32 million come Sunday, marking the best live-action opening of Jennifer Lopez’s career. “Hustlers” follows a group of former strip club dancers, led [...]

  • Hustlers intimacy coordinator

    Meet the Stripper Consultant Who Gave 'Hustlers' Authenticity, Dignity and Sexual Freedom

    At last week’s Toronto Film Festival premiere of “Hustlers,” an audience of Hollywood heavyweights and Canadian locals applauded as a statuesque woman strutted on stage, rocking six-inch platform heels and a pastel tie-dye bodysuit. This adoration was not for stars Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu or Keke Palmer, nor was it for the film’s acclaimed writer-director [...]

  • Kristen Stewart

    French Director Olivier Assayas Pays Tribute to Kristen Stewart at Deauville

    French director Olivier Assayas paid tribute to Kristen Stewart, whom he directed in “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper,” at the Deauville American Film Festival on Friday evening. Stewart received a honorary award in Deauville before the French premiere of Benedict Andrews’s “Seberg” in which the actress stars as Jean Seberg, a French New [...]

  • Liam Gallagher: As It Was

    Film Review: 'Liam Gallagher: As It Was'

    Liam Gallagher is nearly as fascinating a rock ‘n’ roll figure as he thinks he is … which is saying a lot. After the breakup of Oasis, one of the most self-avowedly arrogant stars in pop culture found himself severely humbled, fighting to become relevant again without the help of Noel, his ex-bandmate and, for [...]

  • The Vast of Night

    Toronto Film Review: 'The Vast of Night'

    It’s the first high school basketball game of the season and all of Cayuga, N.M., population 492, is cheering on the Statesmen at the gym. Except for the town’s two brightest kids, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who are strolling through the empty darkness to their respective jobs as a radio DJ and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content