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Monday, December 11, 2006


ModFab On...The Painted Veil

Starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Hélène Cardona, Lu Yin, Yu Xia, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang and Diana Rigg
Written by Ron Nyswaner, based on the novel by Somerset Maugham
Directed by John Curran
Rated PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content

Infidelity, outdoor plumbing and cholera. These are not typical ingredients for a costume drama, but then, Somerset Maugham's poignant expose of class and culture, The Painted Veil, is atypical in many ways. A British couple's disintegration is melodramatically splashed against the grand backdrop of pre-revolutionary China, but the tale is hardly epic in scope. Maugham's finest moments are the small, barely perceptible pinpricks of human cruelty...especially those induced by race, gender, and class. Love is eternal, sure...but so is snobbery, decay and disease, and they all jockey for positioning in The Painted Veil in equally disturbing amounts.

A spoiled young debutante, Kitty (Naomi Watts), is rushed by her overbearing mother into a marriage to a middle-class doctor named Walter Fane (Edward Norton), who she does not love. Fane works as a bacteriologist in Shanghai, and Kitty -- troubled by her cultural exile and her uncomfortably shabby surroundings -- enters into a torrid affair with the debonair Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), another British national who is also married. The lovers are clumsy, however, and soon discovered by Walter, whose pain at the betrayal quickly turns vindictive. He volunteers for a job fighting a cholera outbreak in the Chinese countryside, and takes his wife with him...the social equivalent of prison, cut off from the world, its Western amenities, and any social nicety.

A story like this one could quickly go drearily dark, but screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) refuses to let it, keeping the pace brisk and the mood intense. As the pair attempt to navigate a future together in this brutal environment, both grow as people and as spouses -- Maugham was a fervent believer that love grows over time. Director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore) is content to let Maugham's narrative gently play itself out, focusing on exquisiste production detail (the fringe of velvet curtains, the sway of a bamboo field) and the troubled furrows of Watts' beautiful brow.

For modern audiences, The Painted Veil's inherent anachronism may be problematic. Maugham's vision of love between the classes was controversial in the early 20th century, but it hardly registers today...yet the imperialistic attitude of the British towards the Chinese receives only a cursory glance, and Walter's savage misogyny goes nearly unaddressed. (Diana Rigg, a welcome surprise as the Mother Superior of a local convent, is left to expound variations of the "it's woman's lot in life" theme. Ugh.) Period dramas, of course, cannot be judged by modern mores, but the retrograde polemics are disquieting to say the least. It's hard to care about class struggles when so many other prejudices are on display.

Best to try to put it out of your mind, and enjoy the sumptuous talents who are creating excellent work up on the screen. The performances are marvelous; Watts is appropriately fussy, Norton severe, Schreiber dashing. Stuart Dryburgh's luscious photography alternates between breathtaking (the mountains ranges are gorgeous!) and stomach-churning (no punches pulled with the cholera)...it is his best cinematography since his Oscar-nominated work on 1994's The Piano. Perhaps the most effective film composer working today, Alexandre Desplat, creates majesty with minor-chord harmonics in another beautiful score (his second of the year, after The Queen.)

Just as Maugham did not have the depth of his contemporaries (E.M. Forster, Oscar Wilde), so too does the film version lack the resonance to become a classic like Howard's End or A Room with a View. Its structural predictability limits its ability to surprise an audience, and its antique morality may vex even the most ardent Jane Austen fan. In spite of this, however, The Painted Veil is still the most successful classical adaptation of the year, and well worth seeing. Underneath its dusty, outdated cover, there's a perfectly enjoyable exotic drama. Infidelity, outdoor plumbing and cholera....as a dramatic stew, it's not too bad after all.



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