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.