So often we see stories that focus on love at first sight, unrequited love or forbidden love. Very few books — and especially films — deal with the kind of love that was very common in previous eras: The love that evolved, that grew and blossomed, sometimes long after a couple were officially wed.
In the days of arranged marriages, oftentimes a couple barely knew one another before they walked down the aisle. That unfamiliarity was certainly the case in ”The Painted Veil,” the new and truly remarkable film based on the Somerset Maugham novel. In this instance the ”evolved” love comes at great expense, enormous pain and with an unusual twist.
Naomi Watts again tackles a period role, proving that she is indeed one of the few actresses of her generation who can easily assume the mantle of those graceful screen queens of the 1930s. There is something almost mystical about Watts’ performance in this film — capturing the true essence of a 1920s woman who, though somewhat rebellious, still hints at the manners of the Edwardian era her character has recently exited.
Watts plays Kitty, a London socialite who impulsively marries the attractive, but reserved Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a fellow who instantly decides the beautiful Kitty is the love of his life, even if she barely knows his name. For Kitty, their sudden marriage is all about escaping the stifling environment of her mother’s household — a move more about dysfunctional family politics than anything remotely resembling passion or love for her intended.
Walter is a doctor and a respected scientist, working as a bacteriologist in Shanghai — half a world away.
It is only after the newlyweds arrive in China that things begin to go awry. Kitty quickly realizes she has traveled to the far side of the globe with a man she does not love, thrust into a colonial social order she finds tedious and totally boring. Suddenly, the impressionable and very beautiful Kitty is swept off her feet by the suave British vice consul, played with appropriate smooth smarminess by Liev Schreiber.
Their affair is discovered by Walter, who proves to be far more impassioned in his understated emotions than Kitty would have ever realized. He presents her with a simple proposition: An immediate divorce or the ”opportunity” to join him on a journey to the interior of China, where he plans to do battle with a virulent outbreak of cholera in a remote province. Given that a divorce on the grounds of adultery in the 1920s would have turned Kitty into a social pariah, she has no choice but to follow Walter to his hell hole.
Thus begins the most fascinating and most beautifully structured part of director John Curran’s spectacular film. Though terrific from start to finish, it is in this second two-thirds of ”The Painted Veil” where Norton and Watts truly shine — delivering Oscar-worthy performances as two angry people trapped by their circumstances. Kitty tries so hard to seek Walter’sforgiveness — something his anger, wounded pride and unrelenting silent fury won’t allow him to address for quite a long time.
Curran has crafted a film that accomplishes so much. It not only draws us into this personal drama between his two principal actors, but also sets it all against a vibrant background of an ancient civilization struggling to become modern. Along with the cholera epidemic, we are witness to the winds of political change in China in the years before World War II and the rise of communist rule. The film is strongly bolstered by a terrific supporting cast — especially Toby Jones as a wayward, but engaging British colonial official, and veteran British actress Diana Rigg as the mother superior of the local orphanage/work house. Virtually unrecognizable in her habit and without makeup, Rigg gives one of the best supporting performances seen on film this year.
In the final analysis, Kitty and Walter do find a way to bridge a seemingly unbreachable chasm — but in a way and with ultimate consequences that cannot be revealed here.
This is easily one of the finest films of the year.