The Painted Veil

Making movies in China is a haphazard process. The government has strict regulations on what director can and cannot show, which famously extends to the political. There is a thriving underground film market which produces films like Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl and Beijing Bicycle. Making films that fit within the strict guidelines is another thing. Aside from a few other action movies, the only other notable movie to be made this way was the propaganda-like Pavilion of Women. Director John Curran's (We Don't Live Here Anymore, Praise) The Painted Veil, based on the 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham, is a much better movie. This is more than a love story set in a remote area, it is a love story between two people that initially have little love between them.

Walter Fane (Ed Norton, The Illusionist, Down in the Valley) and Kitty (Naomi Watts, King Kong, Ellie Parker) are married for the wrong reasons. Fane is a bacteriologist in Shanghai. He wants a wife, and falls head over heels for Kitty during a trip to London. His social skills are awkward, and he knows little how what a true marriage entails. Kitty marries to escape her family. She has no love for Walter at all. Which makes the affair in China all the more inevitable. Kitty is alone and bored in a country where she cannot speak the language. When the dashing Vice Consul Charles Townsend (Liev Schrieber, The Omen, The Manchurian Candidate) comes along, she is putty in his hands. As retribution, Walter takes Kitty to Mei-tan-fu, an isolated village in the midst of a cholera epidemic. To make things even worse, the political climate is politically charged against any foreigners.

Nothing is black and white in adapter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia, Love Hurts) screenplay. There is no one person at fault - both entered into a loveless marriage, Kitty cheated, and Walter is relentlessly vindictive. But as cholera rages around them, they soon discover that there is little time for mind games - Walter races to discover the source of the cholera while Kitty helps out in the orphanage, and true love begins to blossom. The setting is visually stunning, and reinforces the isolation that Kitty feels. But the core of the story is the relationship between Kitty and Walter.

It's a good opportunity for Norton and Watts, both amazing actors. They are playing roles that are different from their typical choices, and both characters are flawed, yet emotionally rich. In a sense, both are spoiled children who are used to getting their way, and now are faced with a situation in which they don't. Curran, Watts, and Norton show how the desperate circumstances force Walter and Kitty to grow up emotionally and change over time. The viewer can see their love develop slowly over the latter half of the movie. The ending gets a bit histrionic, as the political situation explodes, turning a quiet love story into something more Hollywood, but this is no different than any other movie of this ilk.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
2 hours, 3 minutes, Rated PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images, and brief drug content.

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