Friday, June 1, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Painted Veil (2006)

Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in The Painted Veil. (Photo: IMDB)

My friend Michael Sragow, who currently writes for the online edition of Film Comment, quipped cleverly when the third adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil was released at Christmas of 2006 that it was the best movie of 1934. He didn’t mean it as a putdown, at least not entirely: the movie, which was written by Ron Nyswaner and directed by John Curran, provides many of the pleasures of old-style Hollywood filmmaking. But Maugham’s 1925 story – about a shallow, self-involved Englishwoman (Naomi Watts) in twenties London who marries a humorless adoring laboratory doctor (Edward Norton) to get away from her mother, moves with him to Shanghai, where she has an affair with a womanizing diplomat from home (Liev Schreiber), and has to pay for her transgression when her husband finds out – is a moral tale in which the adulterous heroine gets punished and learns her lesson. The first movie version actually did come out in 1934, with Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall in the leads; it was beautifully lit and very dull, and it had a tacked-on happy ending. (Garbo’s most luminous performances were sometimes set in dross, but this isn’t an example.) The second was a 1957 CinemaScope release called The Seventh Sin, with Eleanor Parker and Bill Travers, which I haven’t seen. That the property remained on the shelf for half a century in between evidences the difficulty of making it appealing for a contemporary audience. (Several filmmakers tried their hand at adapting it in the interim, including Philip Kaufman.)

Nyswaner and Curran take an improbable route to freeing the material from its Victorian treatment of the heroine, Kitty Fane: they turn it into a love story and they make it work. Her husband Walter’s discovery that she’s sleeping with another man under his nose throws him into a cold fury. He’s always known that she didn’t reciprocate his love for her when he offered to marry her in London, but it never occurred to him that she’d cuckold him. (And he must have deluded himself that somehow he’d make her fall in love with him once he got her out of England.) Now he feels foolish, and that she’s made a mockery of his affection. So he accepts a position running the hospital in Mei-tan-fu, a remote district of China that is overrun by a cholera epidemic, and he demands that she accompany him, or else he’ll institute divorce proceedings against her, name her lover, and ruin her reputation. When she protests that her romance with the diplomat, Charlie Townsend, is real love, he agrees to let her off the hook providing Townsend leaves his wife to marry her. It’s one of the psychological surprises in Maugham’s story that Kitty, for all her drawing-room sophistication, is na├»ve enough to believe that her lover hasn’t just been playing with her, whereas Walter has sussed him out and is in any event more worldly than she about the way upper-class men conduct themselves. So, heartbroken, with no other recourse, she goes to Mei-tan-fu with her husband, though she’s sure that he’s throwing her in the path of danger is a baroque attempt to kill her in revenge for her infidelity. And she’s not wrong. But the epidemic is a crucible that tries both of them. It turns him into a hero, working with a local colonel (the fine Chinese actor Anthony Wong) to protect the villagers through non-traditional and unpopular means. Colonel Yu is skeptical at first of the abilities and motives of this white colonial; Walter has to win him over. And the ordeal in Mei-tan-fu deepens Kitty’s character. In Nywaner and Curran’s version, what happens is what Nora in A Doll’s House would call “the most wonderful thing of all”: husband and wife both change so much that in the end they meet on vastly different ground and fall in love (or in his case, fall in love all over again).

Watts as Kitty Fane. (Photo: IMDB)

This approach wouldn’t work without performers of the caliber of Norton and Watts. Norton is one of the few actors around who can play both rugged masculine roles and nerdy, introverted characters, and that range works brilliantly for him here, where we have to see Walter’s fumbling courtship through Kitty’s eyes and then comprehend how it damages his sense of himself as a man. (Maugham makes it clear that Kitty’s issue with Walter isn’t that he’s sexually clumsy; it’s that because she isn’t attracted to him she finds his passion demanding and embarrassing, a millstone around her neck.) What the script calls on Norton to do is very challenging: reveal the sensual openness of a man who can’t otherwise articulate his feelings, then show how his sense that he’s been made ridiculous releases reserves of anger and vengefulness his selfish wife couldn’t have suspected, and finally to reverse those impulses and allow him to move from emotional remoteness through calm to forgiveness. And I’m not sure anyone else could have accomplished it in quite this way, though Walter is enough of an oddball character that there’s a danger of underrating Norton’s performance. He almost matches Watts, who’s phenomenal. She gets the edge of Kitty’s character: her sullenness, her sexual restlessness, her automatic – almost unconscious – opportunism, her air of aristocratic entitlement; she doesn’t bother to cushion the essential unlikability of her character. And that’s why Kitty’s growth into a recognition of the damage she’s done (as well as the twist that she winds up falling in love with her husband) is so unexpected. The main difference in quality between her work and Norton’s is that Watts has an ease at playing in period that’s almost instinctual. (That was clear in King Kong.) Here as in The Illusionist, Norton has to reach to put himself in both the period and the culture. It’s a creditable effort but it is an effort, though you might not think about it at all if he weren’t acting opposite Watts.

Nyswaner tries to incorporate more of the politics of 1920s China than either Maugham or Richard Boleslavsky in the 1934 movie – including the dislike of white foreigners that comes into play when Fane initiates measures the locals resent (like moving them farther away from the source of their drinking water). But Curran doesn’t have the experience, perhaps, to pull off scenes like the one where Kitty is followed into an alley by some trouble-making young Chinese men and has to be rescued. You admire him, though, for trying to create a plausible historical context for the story. It’s part of what makes The Painted Veil so completely involving. Curran does superb work with the cast (which includes Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior of an orphanage in Mei-tan-fu and Toby Jones as a scruffy, affable British neighbor who befriends the Fanes), though Liev Schreiber isn’t quite right as Townsend – he doesn’t have the suave moves down. The film, shot by Stuart Dryburgh, looks exquisite, and it’s set to a deluxe score by Alexandre Desplat. The Painted Veil offers a fully emotional experience – the kind you used to be able to count on at the movies but is now rare enough to qualify as a Christmas treat.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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