Theirs is as fine an acting duet as any this year

The Painted Veil

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

        Because Somerset Maugham wrote a raft of bestsellers, he is often consigned by success in his own time to a literary second tier. He wrote books that the public loved and many of these led to richly made movies that gained great public success - Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, Rain, to mention a few. A Maugham story would not be Maugham if it did not deal with climate and class, usually the effect of one upon the other. Maugham takes his western characters, plunks them down in a difficult climate, usually tropical, and proceeds to make a story of the relationships among them. The indigenous population and their culture are merely background for Maugham’s dramas.

        “The Painted Veil” is set in China, somewhere in the vicinity of Shanghai in a hot, fly ridden village that is being swept by a cholera epidemic. Director John Curran takes just seconds to establish the fact that Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts) is imprisoned in the culture of a British household whose matriarch who is obsessed by her determination to see her daughters marry up. When Walter Fane (Edward Norton) falls in love with Kitty, her mother is not satisfied with a civil service bacteriologist about to be posted to Shanghai. Kitty marries him to escape propriety and shortly after arriving in Shanghai, indulges herself in an adulterous affair with Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber).

        Walter imposes a fiendish punishment: she will accompany him to a remote village in the heart of the epidemic. Bent over his microscope, determined to stop the spread of cholera, Walter is unable to forgive his wife’s adultery. “I knew when I married you that you were selfish and spoiled.” He has willed himself into detachment and reserves what is inside him for himself alone. The story is one of transformation – his, hers, and theirs.

        You will concentrate only on the Europeans, and their uncomplaining acceptance of the climate. Everyone else is background, in the Maugham fashion. The clothes are superb. Walter in a sweat stained silk and linen vest over a wilting white shirt, Kitty in the light, low waisted dresses of the ‘20s, always topped by a parasol to shield her from the sun. . Anyone who loved Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in “The Avengers” will smile at the rich irony of this flamboyant British actress as Mother Superior.

        The movie is filmed in deep, dark colors in nearly windowless interiors – an appropriate setting for evenings that pass in silence. Things move slowly, but it is this pace that allows the characters to grow. If you are an action fan, look elsewhere. If you love to watch characters develop, you will love the excellent, restrained performances of Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. Theirs is as fine an acting duet as any this year. It’s about Europeans in service to a distant world, about fate, anger, and danger. It’s all from the pen of Somerset Maugham.

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