A review of “The Painted Veil” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for language and mature subject matter

Run Time: 2 hours, 16 minutes

 

 

The classic W. Somerset Maugham novel gets the pretty treatment in this escalating drama of an embittered English couple navigating the perils of China circa 1925.

Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) is a staid bacteriologist managing a government lab in Shanghai when he falls for a beautiful but restless socialite named Kitty (Naomi Watts). Petulant, spoiled and hard to please Kitty nonetheless accepts Walter’s proposal of marriage out of desperation to escape her stifling family. “I improve greatly upon acquaintance” declares Walter, and they’re off to the races.

Soon enough the jaded newlywed is shacking up with another man (Liev Schreiber), at which point a bitter cuckolded Walter bullies his wife into accompanying him to a small village on a tributary of the Yangtze where he has volunteered to aid the cholera epidemic. Out of sight, out of mind.

Naturally Kitty is revolted by life in rural China and browbeaten by the wretched living conditions and Walter’s unforgiving attitude. Forced by extreme circumstances to deal with the matters at hand the estranged couple launches on a journey of self-discovery that ultimately ends in tragedy.

“Veil” isn’t thrilling filmmaking but rather sturdy adult fare that works lush period locations and the subtle gifts of its talented actors to its advantage. Both Norton and Watts convey gradations of emotion with little in the way of words – the pain, regret, yearning and tolerance borne of the open wounds of betrayal. 

Only a tetchy political subplot and a blatant British vs. Far East undercurrent stray from the textured grace of this fine romance.