A Review of John Curran’s “The Painted Veil”

 Exquisitely Layered, Haunting, and Clever Period Romance, 14 January 2007
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

John Curran’s nearly pitch perfect film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Painted Veil” begins slowly and patiently, with leisurely flashbacks that elliptically bring us to a singularly absurd predicament: circa 1925, a British doctor (Edward Norton in his second romantic lead following “The Illusionist”) has brought his lovely young wife (an entrancing Naomi Watts) into the middle of a Chinese cholera epidemic purely out of spite. It’s a wickedly clever little set-up that becomes increasingly more complex and absorbing.

The note-perfect and delicately layered performances of Watts and Norton, two thespians typically acclaimed for their edgy and independent work and playing against type, are anchored with the literary genius of Maugham and Curran’s keen eye and steady hand behind the camera. It’s all perfectly accentuated by the brilliantly subversive music score by Alexandre Desplat (doing his best work since “Birth”). These cleverly designed elements coalesce deliciously into a fully fleshed-out whole, and allow “The Painted Veil” to grow in your mind organically and slowly slip under your skin like an infectious disease.

Ron Nyswaner does a great job of translating Maugham’s writing to the screen. Virtually nothing is lost. That keen British wit, the dramatic sense of irony, and the sincere exploration of many heady themes including loveless marriages, adultery, imperialism, charity, religion, and redemption are all captured beautifully by director Curran and screenwriter Nyswaner. Watts and Norton are given plenty to chew on, not only great lines, but great scenes full of lush scenery, and beautiful and textured visual details that serve as perfect backdrops for their complex and unpredictable relationship.

Back in the heyday of Merchant-Ivory, it seemed like this type of literary minded period-piece was a dime a dozen. There hasn’t been a hugely successful film of this type since 1996’s “The English Patient.” We haven’t seen a worthwhile film in this genre since Neil Jordon’s underrated “The End of the Affair” in 1999, which not coincidentally was an adaptation of one of the great novels from Maugham’s fellow Brit and contemporary, Graham Greene, and addressed many of the same themes.

What “The Painted Veil” lacks in epic sweep it makes up for in scores with its nuanced performances and subversive outlook on romance and true love. Its finely landscaped images of China are transfixing, but it’s the look on Norton’s face when he realizes the woman his wife has become, and the glimmer of a tear forming in Watts’ eye when she realizes what she’s done that will haunt you.

Originally published on the Internet Movie Database.




  1. A nicely written review. I agree with you that is was a lovely film. In fact, I am going to watch it again just to hear the soundtrack again-all that lovely Eric Satie.

    Princess Haiku, yes, the music was fantastic in this film. I bought the soundtrack and listen to it often when I read. I also purchased the DVD as this is a movie to treasure and watch multiple times. -DHS

  2. Wonderful review. Beautiful movie, I loved it. Does the song, that is sung in Chinese, at the end of the movie, when Kitty is walking back to the house from the refugee camp, have a name and is it on the soundtrack?
    Oh my that is a long, terrible sentence, please forgive my grammar. Thanks.

    Mimi, sadly, that song is not on the soundtrack. I believe that it is actually a French song sung in French by the Chinese children (if you recall, the nuns in the film were French). It had a bittersweet and haunting effect in the film. It is sad they did not include it on the otherwise excellent soundtrack. -DHS

  3. rewatching film -you are right it is French-thank you -alas alas

    Mimi, glad I could be of service. –DHS

  4. Its a very common French children’s song called À la claire fontaine.


    WOW! Thanks for solving that mystery. –DHS

  5. Yes, it is A la Claire Fontaine…but where can I get a copy of it? It’s the most beautiful version I’ve heard.

    Jeanie, sadly, I do not know. –DHS

  6. This was the most beautiful film i’ve seen in years.It was absolutely exquisite, the actors were perfect for the roles, they delivered every feeling and emotion perfectly. I would watch this film over and over again… Bravo!

  7. I was just wondering what the song was that the (for lack of a better word since she was Chinese and not Japanese) Geisha was singing? It was so beautiful and haunting. I have not heard the actual soundtrack yet, but I plan on buying it, I was just wondering if that song is on it.

    Sally, no, that song is not on the soundtrack (one wonders who puts these soundtracks together). You stumped me on this one. I do not know what the name of the song is. –DHS

  8. Sally Star, I was also wondering about that song. It’s not on the soundtrack, I was so disappointed! Must track it down – it’s beautiful!

    Sally and MJ, upon further research, according to the IMDB, the song is as follows:

    “Su San Qi Jie”
    Traditional – No Composer
    Performed and Arranged by Lin Zheng


  9. This is a truly beautiful film, well cast, well acted, beautiful scenery, lovely, haunting score. Even the small roles are well delivered and memorable (Diana Rigg, Toby Jones, and the Chinese actors). Somerset Maugham’s book is a disappointment after the film–very little of the original story by him is put in the film and his characters lack the transcendence quality that the film embraces. This is a story about finding love after disappointment and the heartache that genuine love and loss finally brings. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts gave the world a great gift by making this film. Wonderful actors, they bring the love story to fruition with grace and dignity. Toby Jones affecting performance as the observer of great truths is something to behold. This is a movie to cherish and watch over and over again. It has the resonance to be considered truly one of the great films of our times.

    Does anyone know if this movie was filmed in the area of China devastated by the recent earthquake? Susan

    Susan, well said. The movie was filmed in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China. Here’s a link that discusses where filming took place:


    Apparently the area was affected by the earthquake and more recently by flooding. –DHS

  10. this film is stunning on every level – my current obsession. the song has haunted me, & i could not rest until i had more. you will find it on YouTube by searching for A la Claire Fontaine The Painted Veil, showing the sequence from the film. like a proper OCDer, i also often set my Repeat A-B feature on the DVD & listen to it ad nauseum, w/o the nauseum of course, to gain the best sound. (i will forever hear the song in my head with Kitty’s gentle “What are you doing?” imbedded a minute into it.) heaven. there is no explaining it’s not being on the soundtrack. it’s a French children’s nursery song about a man who lost his love because he did not buy her flowers (which explains something about the French & love). a good search of the net will provide more there too, for anyone interested. knowing this detail makes the scene in the flowershop that begins their relationship all-the-more poignant. i wanted more from the book, & got only frustration. i would love to know the decisions that were made in enhancing the story in all the ways they did. makes you appreciate movie makers so much more. i need to make a final recommendation: there is another YouTube video someone assembled very artfully with 9 Crimes that took my breath away. search for “the painted veil (le voile des illusions).”

    Joyce, it’s strange how the film didn’t do better at the box office when it played in theaters. It certainly seems to be developing a rabid following since then (and rightfully so). I think this will be looked back on in 10 years or so as a classic. The deep details (like the one you so wonderfully researched) found in the film continue to astound me. –DHS

  11. any update on finding the song a la claire fontaine besides the version from youtube?

    Elizabeth, I have sadly not found anything other than that at this point. –DHS

  12. I found your website while searching for anything about the deleted scenes on the disc. I can’t believe there aren’t any as the trailer definitely shows scenes which are not in the movie. I just recently saw this film, consider myself a bit of a film buff and so have no idea how I missed this!! This film may well be my favorite film of all time. I am currently turning on lots of my friends, who also did not know of it! Great performances, fantastic scenery, compelling story on so many levels. Love and pestilence, what could be better! I hope that eventually they reissue this with deleted scenes and commentary on the making of the film!

    Brandy, I am glad you discovered this great film, as many have over the past year. I think it will age even better with time, and who knows, maybe there will be a director’s cut or Criterion Collection edition in another ten years. –DHS

  13. i was looking for the version of the french song, a la claire fontaine and the artist is Les Petits Minous. its on itunes. =] enjoy

    Thanks for the info! –DHS

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