Director: John Curran
Starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton
It’s unfortunate that a film as well-made as this one was little more than a blip on the radar when it was released in theatres. John Curran’s The Painted Veil has everything going for it: a great cast, a compelling story, and fantastic production values (even the opening credits sequence is breathtaking). This is a technical and artistic triumph, a movie that definitely didn’t deserve to fall through the cracks.
The story takes place in the 1920s and centers on Walter and Kitty Fane (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts), who rush into marriage and find themselves in over their heads in more ways than one. Walter is a doctor who is about to return to his work in Shanghai and falls in love with Kitty at a party. Kitty is a socialite who accepts his proposal in order to escape her mother, who keeps reminding her that the clock is ticking if she wants to avoid becoming an old maid. It is immediately apparent that the marriage will be an unhappy one: Walter and Kitty hardly know each other and have little in common. Walter is caught up in his work and Kitty quickly becomes bored and falls into an affair with Charles Townsend (Liev Schrieber). Walter discovers the affair and threatens Kitty with scandal and divorce unless she accompanies him into the countryside where he will be attending to a cholera epidemic.
Far removed from the comforts of the city, Walter and Kitty continue to grow apart. Aside from his marital troubles, Walter also encounters problems in trying to contain the epidemic. More scientist than doctor, he has little experience dealing the realities of sick people and even less dealing with the clash of cultures as the Chinese Nationalists stir up anti-Western sentiment and make it increasingly difficult for Walter to gain the trust of the locals. Kitty, meanwhile, occupies her time volunteering at an orphanage run by French nuns, and slowly begins to close the gap between herself and her husband.
As Walter, Norton delivers a very understated and restrained performance as a man who would rather suppress everything he feels than show even the slightest emotion. By design it’s a very quiet and undemonstrative role, the kind that seems deceptively simple. As Kitty, Watts has a meatier role, playing as she does a character who wears her emotions on her sleeve and has a greater narrative arc, going from selfish socialite to selfless wife and nurse. Watts is more than up to the challenge and convincingly conveys Kitt's transformation. There are also nice supporting performances by Toby Jones as one of the sole survivors of the original outbreak, and Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior of the orphanage, both of whom become confidantes for Kitty.
The technical aspects of the film are top notch, from the beautiful photography and costumes, to the score by Alexandre Desplat, who is quickly becoming one of my favourite film composers. The direction by John Curran is measured and restrained, letting the story unfold at its own pace rather than forcing it along. The only criticism I have is that the film should have ended with the beautiful shot of the boat carrying Kitty away up the Yangtze river, rather than the brief epilogue which takes place in England. But this is only a minor criticism of what is otherwise a wonderful and engaging film.