The Painted Veil

Based on Somerset Maugham’s 1935 novel of the same name, The Painted Veil has all the melodrama of a Merchant Ivory classic. But despite picture-postcard backgrounds from the heart of Guangxi province, a racy plot and two solid leads, the film feels clinical and distant.

Dr Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a solemn bacteriologist proposes marriage to Kitty Watts, a pretty but shallow London socialite. Eager to escape her family, she accepts, and the two move to Shanghai, where Kitty starts having an affair with the handsome vice-consul, Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber), a relationship she takes more seriously than he. When Walter finds out, he punishes his adulterous wife by dragging her into the heart of the cholera epidemic in rural China..

Arriving in Mei-tan-fu after an arduous ten day journey (the sultriness is palpable), Walter all but ignores his wife while he gets on with medical research. With nothing to do all day, Kitty decides to help out at the local orphanage. Her self-centred horizons are broadened by the experience, and she even learns to respect her husband; a respect that is gradually reciprocated.

Performances are impeccable, but cold. Edward Norton’s Dr Fane has clipped Englishness to a tee. His cold vindictiveness when he hears of his wife’s infidelity comes as a shock, but whilst his actions demonstrate a burgeoning manliness formerly unseen in Fane, whose high, reedy voice hints at insecurity and sexual awkwardness, they also betray a spiteful streak that at least matches that of Kitty. Meanwhile, Watts gives the film its emotional core. She is petulant and flighty, but when push comes to shove demonstrates a tentative but genuine compassion for the suffering Chinese. But the constraints of a turgid script and the characters’ narrow self-absorbtion limit the actors’ ability to captivate their audience. Only when the two leads gradually re-evaluate each other’s worth do we sense any chemistry between them.

The supporting actors are fantastic. Toby Jones gives much needed comic relief as the jaded civil servant who has settled for a harmonic existence with his indulgent Chinese concubine, whilst Diana Rigg displays marvellous sagacity as the no-nonsense mother superior. Liev Schreiber’s oily diplomat is a type, but he certainly delivers the requisite virility to ensnare Kitty.

The build up to Kitty’s affair is so rushed it could have been the trailer. Fane meets Kitty at a dance, she finds him dull, but two scenes later they’re married. With so little time to play with, the characters are necessarily presented as stereotypes during the first half, although Fane’s dramatic decision to leave Shanghai gives the film momentum. Director John Curran does give a decent stab at engaging with contemporary issues, resulting in a much richer second half, such as the threats of anti-English nationalists, spurred by a real-life British military massacre of Chinese demonstrators in 1925, and the superstitious townspeople who refuse to bury their dead.

The Painted Veil has all the elements of a great epic, but it fails to engage. The acting is impeccable, the backdrops luscious, but we’re never quite able to cross the emotional bridge between the sofa and the screen.

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