Painted Veil, The (2006)

Though a labor of love of actor-producer Edward Norton, who has been wanting to make a new version of W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel for years, John Curran's film version is uneven in writing, acting, direction, and execution.

On the plus side, Curran and his actors, Norton, Naomi Watts, and Liev Schreiber, have made a very different film from the previous versions of the novel, which, to the best of my knowledge, was adapted twice, the first time using the same title, as a Garbo vehicle in 1934, and the second, under the title “The Seventh Sin,” in 1957, with an earnest, dreadful performance by Eleanor Parker.

As it unfolds on screen, the film benefits from on-location shooting in China, but it's still a mixed bag, due to its problems in illuminating the morality, customs, and West-East divide so sharply yet subtly depicted in Maugham's novel, and some changes introduced by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (still best known for the 1993 screenplay of “Philadelphia”), particularly in the last reel. (See more below).

There's always a room for a stately, literary cinema, the kind of which Merchant-Ivory specialized in for decades. Curran's “Painted Veil” may fill the bill this season for upscale audiences that like to see movies of traditional quality. (Francois Truffaut, Godard, and other leaders of the French New Wave rebelled against this prevalent tradition in the French Cinema of the 1950s).

Set in 1925 against the visually stunning backdrop of China during one of its most dramatic periods of upheaval, “The Painted Veil” tells the story of an estranged husband and wife, who find redemption and unexpected love and grace in the most unlikely of places, and under the most bizarre circumstances.

The first reel establishes Kitty (Naomi Watts) as a product/victim of an upper class London socialite culture that dictates that women of a certain age must find a husband and behave like proper ladies. To remain unwed much longer would be highly unbecoming, not to mention humiliating for her exceedingly socially- conscious mother.

Bored with her privileged lifestyle and yearning for escape, Kitty accepts a proposal of marriage from Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a quiet, gentlemanly, serious-minded bacteriologist. Kitty hardly knows Walter, but he provides a seemingly avenue of escape from the suffocating clutches of her rigid, conservative parents and sister, from whom she feels detached.

The couple moves to Shanghai, a strange city blooming into the center of popular culture, political intrigue, and vice in China. The Fanes try to integrate into British colonial society, where they are introduced to English Vice Consul Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber), a married man. While Walter dedicates himself to his work and to his new wife, Kitty embarks on an adulterous affair with Charlie.

After Walter learns of her indiscretion, he accepts a job in a remote village in China ravaged by the deadly cholera epidemic. Motivated by vengeance, he forces a despondent Kitty to accompany him. After the Fanes arrive in the village of Mei-tan-fu, the couples wintry isolation continues. Kitty befriends a neighbor, Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones, recently seen in “Infamous” as Truman Capote).

Their scenes together are poignant and have intimacy that the rest of the film lacks. Jones' Deputy is an exploitative, decadent colonial, who relishes the privileges of his position, including his relationship with a local concubine.

Gradually, the emotional trappings of Kitty's former life fall away as she begins to confront the reality of her surroundings. Amid the human wreckage of the cholera epidemic, which has given both spouses a new, honorable purpose, Kitty and Walter discover forgiveness, understanding, tenderness, and redemptionthey rediscover each other and truly fall in love. There's a lovely sex scene, in which we get the impression that it's the first time that both enjoy the encounter, since it's based on true feelings for each other.

Nyswaner is only partially successful in illustrating what was so great about the novel. Portions of the book that explain Kittys back-story and shed light on her decision to marry Walter are condensed into a brief prologue of flashbacks, which is fine, even if the strategy breaks the narrative flow. However, his writing is not sufficiently nuanced to illuminate the subtle changes of the saga from from a tale of revenge–a man with a broken heart seeks to punish his adulterous wife–into one of redemption of the highest moral order. Though illustrating how the journey of this initially ill-matched couple is fraught with sexual and psychological tensions, Curran and his writer are not entirely effective in conveying the couple's personal, spiritual journey, which is a tough challenge to portray even for accomplished actors like Norton and Watts.

As he demonstrated in his previous feature, “We Don't Live Here Anymore” (which co-starred Naomi Watts), Curran is good with actors. In this feature, it's Norton who gives the strongest performance in what's an admittedly tough role, that of a vengeful if also unassertive husband.

British-born Watts (who grew up in Australia) gets the accent and looks right, but is somehow timid and too restrained to convey the passionate and wild Kitty. A sholar of screen acting might benefit from studying the divergent interpretations and performances given by Garbo in the 1930s version, Eleanor Parker in the 1950s, and Watts in the present one. (My favorite is Garbo, but for reasons that have little to do with Maugham's characterization).

There are also good turns from the supporting cast, which includes Toby Jones, the only thesp who gets the tone of the book right, and stage actress Diana Rigg, as Mother Superior, who imparts some lessons of humanity and dignity to the remorseful Kitty while in crisis.

Please Do Not Read if You Have Not Seen the Film

For the most part, Nyswaner is faithful to Maugham, and some dialogue scenes are lifted straight out of the book. However, I have reservations over the some of the changes and the ending of the film, an epilogue set years after the tale, in which the widowed Kitty and her boy encounter Charlie (who's the biological father) accidentally on a London street.

The novel features a more poignant denouement. It depicts a widowed and pregnant Kitty returning to London after her mother's death, where she reestablish for the first time in her life a genuine emotional bond with her grieving father, showing the kind of respect for him as a civil servant that neither she nor her mother ever had for him.

About Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874, but grew up in England. He spent years as a medical student before becoming one of the 20the centurys most popular novelists. Several of his books have been made into Hollywood movies, including George Cukor's “Our Betters” and “The Razor's Edge.”