“The Painted Veil” is a story about love in the time of cholera, but it’s not based on that novel. Rather, it’s based on the W. Somerset Maugham book of the same name. The story has been around for quite a while, having been on the screen before with Greta Garbo in 1934. Whether you know this or not, you might still get the sense that you’ve seen it all before.
The film, directed by John Curran, stars Naomi Watts and Edward Norton as Walter and Kitty Fane, a not-so-loving couple who meet in 1920s London and, after their wedding, move to Shanghai in China, a land still under British imperialist rule. He is a bacteriologist, and soon drags her along to a remote village that is suffering under a cholera epidemic.
It is not a pleasant trip, with Walter having recently caught Kitty in an act of adultery. He has essentially manipulated her into staying with him and coming along, and she is most definitely unhappy about it. Kitty tries working in an orphanage, befriending the children and the French nuns who have stayed amidst the increasing suffering. Walter tries to help the suffering people, all the while facing antagonism from the growing nationalist feeling. However, in that remote location, their love manages to blossom, and, of course, they discover things about themselves and each other.
You probably saw that coming. Indeed, there aren’t many surprises in this often stodgy film. The scenery is beautiful, but filmed in uninspiring ways by the relatively inexperienced Curran. It looks and plays out like most any other typical period piece you’ve seen before, with the story taking all the usual turns, and the characters behaving in all the usual ways.
In fact, the only thing that really caught me off guard was the ending. I kept waiting for significant things to happen, for a revolution, a breakthrough, something that would make these characters’ lives unique, but it never came.
The acting is rather typical as well. Naomi Watts is decent enough, but there isn’t enough to make us really care for her character. Norton delivers an unusually dry performance, and both are upstaged by strong supporting turns from Toby Jones and Liev Schreiber, who are able to give enough commanding presence to make their roles their own, rather than carbon copies of literary characters.
There is also a failure in the script to really decide what it thinks about the issues exhibited in the story. Conflicts over government, race, and social class are brushed over, seemingly in hopes that we will want to focus on the love story which is meant to be the film’s heart and soul. Sadly, it’s just not interesting enough.
It could have been compelling, complex, and filled with inspired moments, but the film seems to have used a period drama mold and just forced all of the different details into it. They fit perfectly, but with these kinds of films having been done so well so many times, it’s time for someone to smash that mold into tiny pieces.