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The Painted Veil (2006)

June 22nd, 2007 · 3 Comments

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In 1925, British couple Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts) and Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) travel by sedan chair through interior China. In flashbacks to London, we learn that Walter is a bacteriologist who runs a government lab in Shanghai. He woos Kitty, an attractive, but immature girl. She has no romantic feelings for the serious doctor, but accepts a marriage proposal to get away from her mother.

In China, Kitty discovers she has little in common with her husband, and is bored. She has an affair with a married British diplomat (Liev Schreiber). Walter notifies his wife that he’s volunteered to take over a hospital in a town overrun by a cholera outbreak on a tributary of the Yangtze River. He’ aware of her affair, and threatens to divorce her for adultery unless she accompanies him.

By the time they reach the town, the couple is barely speaking. They befriend the British deputy commissioner (Toby Jones), their last surviving neighbor. Kitty presumes that Walter could care less whether she lives or dies, and volunteers at an orphanage run by a French Mother Superior (Diana Rigg). As Walter works to treat the epidemic, Kitty begins to see how passionate he actually is. Husband and wife start to fall in love.

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Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner had been intrigued by the work of author W. Somerset Maugham since he’d seen Of Human Bondage with Bette Davis and Noel Howard as a child. Going through Maugham’s books, he came to The Painted Veil. Nyswaner admired the way that story shifted from one about revenge into one of redemption. He spent three years writing and developing an adaptation with producer Sara Colleton.

They sent the script to Edward Norton in 1999. Norton – who studied Chinese history at Yale as an undergrad – was enthusiastic about it. He spent six months working with Nyswaner making China much more relevant to the story, and taking the relationship between Walter and Kitty further than Maugham had. Norton gave the script to Naomi Watts, who also loved it, but Norton couldn’t attach a director, or work out a schedule to make the film with her.

In 2001, producers Bob Yari and Mark Gordon became involved, along with Mark Gill, then president of Yari and Gordon’s company. Gill left to become president of Warner Independent Pictures in 2003, and set the project up at his new studio. With still no director, Watts recommended John Curran, who had guided her and Mark Ruffalo to strong performances in We Don’t Live Here Anymore.

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In the derby for awards recognition, The Painted Veil never got out of the gate. The studio claimed that the film’s lengthy post-production prevented DVD screeners from being sent out with enough time to build a buzz. Norton attributed the lack of support to the fact that Mark Gill had been forced out at Warner Independent. His replacement never gave the film the marketing push that Good Night, and Good Luck had received, and the movie came and went.

What all this means is that a great film – one of the decade’s best – hasn’t been seen by many people yet. The Painted Veil is sophisticated, sensual and haunting in the way the great romances of the ’60s and ’70s were. The decade this film spent headed to the screen is obvious everywhere you look. This was a real labor of love for those involved, and I can’t recommend it enough.

The film feels epic, with spectacular vistas filmed in Guilin, along the Lijiang River. But the storytelling is just as rich in the way it intimately details the failure, and then redemption of a marriage. Watts and Norton took a chance playing characters who are not couple of the year material. They may not be likable at first, but the journey they go on and how they evolve together is captivating.

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Produced for $19 million, the movie appears four or five times that amount. Curran and director of photography Stuart Dryburgh frame the most exquisite widescreen compositions I’ve seen in some time. Selecting screenshots to post here was a breeze; every other frame in the film looks beautiful.

The content – China, cholera – may not have appealed to mass audiences, but the movie resonated with me. Along with a tragic romance, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a film about colonialism made this beautifully. Norton and Rigg play idealists who travel to a foreign land hoping to make it over in the image of their own country. Instead of changing the land, the characters end up being the ones who change.

Alexandre Desplat received an Academy Award nomination for his elegant musical score, which reminded me of Maurice Jarre throughout. There’s also a dazzling opening credits sequence I expected would be the work of Saul and Elaine Bass; it isn’t, but it has that same level of craftsmanship. Highly recommended, particularly for those who wish David Lean was still alive and making films.

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The Painted Veil is a complicated but delicate film. It really is a lasting sort of story, however, and credit seems to be best served to writer Ron Nyswaner,” writes Kristopher Tapley at In Contention.

Nick Schager at Lessons of Darkness gives the film a C+, noting its “absence of blistering heat, with Walter and Kitty’s thorny relationship … lacking an essential, gripping spark of self-destructiveness and ardor.”

The Painted Veil is gorgeous to behold, a sweeping epic romance with spectacular visuals, a lovely score, an attractive cast who are uniformly excellent, and a story that really strikes a truthful chord,” says T.C. Candler at Independent Critics, who gives it an A+.

Tags: Based on novel · Bathtub scene · Small town · Unconventional romance

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 M. Duran // Sep 29, 2007 at 8:00 am

    Your own assessment puts your byline on my must read list, as in: “…a great film…one of the decade’s best…sophisticated, sensual and haunting in the way the great romances of the ’60s and ’70s were…a real labor of love for those involved, and I can’t recommend it enough” should say it for anybody. Among the very best in the decade that will in time be acknowledged.

    Congratulations

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Sep 29, 2007 at 11:45 am

    M: I do believe your appraisal of my article was more articulate than anything in the article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Feel free to do so again, particularly if they include praise for the author.

  • 3 Grayce // Sep 16, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    Just saw the film on dvd. I agree, it deserves more public discussion. Diana Rigg was a delightful surprise. Hoping Norton and Watts, as producers, get mileage.

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