I admit to having approached this third film version of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil with reservations. I’d disliked John Curran’s previous film, We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), and the trailer for this one looked too much like ersatz Merchant-Ivory for its own good. However, as a huge admirer of the writings of once extremely popular and now largely neglected British writers of the first half of the 20th century (Maugham, J.B. Priestley, Hugh Walpole, John Galsworthy, etc.), I’m always interested when someone attempts to bring their work to the screen — something that happens all too infrequently. Maugham tends to be less neglected than most — his 1937 novel Theatre was filmed as Being Julia in 2004 — so it was less surprising to find one of his books making the transition to film. More surprising is the fact that Curran and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) have managed to pull off a very good version of the story.
A few aspects of the book are tweaked in a romanticized manner, but the film keeps Maugham’s keen observations intact and shares the author’s penchant for refusing to be judgmental about the actions of his characters. Maugham — along with most of his contemporaries — was always conscious that he was writing popular fiction, meaning that the storylines of his writings tend to conform to the prevailing taste of the era. In this case, that means a tight, carefully developed narrative with any deeper themes interwoven into the story as seamlessly as possible. (The closest the material ever comes to stopping to make a point is in the brilliant moment where the Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) speaks about the changes in her relationship with God over the years.) Curran and Nyswaner get this approach — as presumably do co-producer stars Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.
The film treats the conventions of 1925 with respect, without condescension or superiority (and, blessedly, without post-modern smugness), realizing that the key to bringing a period drama to the screen is to accept that the characters think of themselves as modern, not as characters in a period piece. This is what makes The Painted Veil work as drama — and, in fact, makes it surprisingly modern.
The storyline is essentially melodrama. Kitty Fane (Watts) has married Walter Fane (Norton) and followed him to Shanghai for no other reason than to get out from under her oppressive family — a fact known to both husband and wife. So, it’s no surprise that she quickly falls for the more obvious charms of married lothario Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) when he makes himself attentive to her. When the affair is discovered, Walter offers Kitty the choice of a divorce that will ruin both her and Townsend — or she can accompany him on a trip into the interior of China where a cholera epidemic is raging. Being a 1925 work, it’s not hard to guess where this is going — though the depth of characterization and the manner in which it arrives at its predictable conclusion is another matter.
On this level, the film is something of a marvel, capturing both Maugham’s slightly world-weary attitude and his basic sense of humanity at the same time. More remarkable still, perhaps, is the way the film plays on Edward Norton’s rather cold, overly intellectual screen persona, using that aspect of his acting to its advantage. Walter Fane seems like the role he was born to play, since it taps into precisely that kind of detached coolness — only here, we’re allowed to catch glimpses of the thoughtful, even fragile human being hiding behind that facade. This may in fact be the most completely human performance of his career as a result.
It certainly helps that he and Watts actually have onscreen chemistry. What’s more, there’s a good chemistry between all the players that affords them the illusion of actual human beings interacting, and allows us to realize slowly that no one — not Walter, not Kitty, not the British consul (the splendid Toby Jones), not the Mother Superior — is as simply read as they at first seem. Yes, it’s old-fashioned filmmaking and a rather old-fashioned story, but the people are anything but. Rated PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke