Movie Review – The Painted Veil (2006)
by RISHI AGRAWAL
The Painted Veil may go down in history as a wonderful accomplishment in art direction. The movie is beautiful, from the streets of 1920s London to the steep, tiny hills on the banks of the Yangtze River. Unfortunately, at times, the film uses beauty as a substitute for plot.
The movie, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, centers on Kitty (Naomi Watts), a young woman who has no interest in marriage. Still, she agrees to marry Walter Fane (Edward Norton), though she does not love him. Walter knows this, but due to his deep feelings for Kitty, marries her anyway. They move to Shanghai, where Walter works as a bacteriologist. As their relationship falls apart, Walter agrees to help a village in inland China that has fallen prey to a cholera epidemic. He brings Kitty with him, despite her protests. Meanwhile, Chinese nationalists rally, spreading an anti-foreigner sentiment through the country, occasionally placing the principal characters in danger.
This richly layered and complex plot may work in a novel, but its treatment in this two-hour film seems cursory. While the focus of the film is intended to be on Kitty and her journey, the film gets caught up in the subplots and leaves us wanting more from the main plot. In one scene, Kitty and Walter walk through the stunning Chinese landscape. This would be a perfect opportunity to explore their relationship, but instead, we just get more scenes of the backdrop and the overpowering score by Alexandre Desplat. Even the dialogue is suppressed.
This is not to say that the film is a complete failure. In fact, had the film actually been horrible, I would not left wanting more at the end. Both Naomi Watts and Edward Norton create interesting, complex characters that live and breathe; they are not simply cookie cutter characters. The Fanes’ strange little neighbor, the unconventional-looking Mr. Waddington (Toby Jones), provides an interesting contrast as he smokes opium (presumably) and cavorts with a Chinese girl much younger than he is.
And there is some ugliness in the film: the aforementioned Mr. Waddington, the unpleasant personality of Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), a politician from Shanghai, and of course, the sad brutality of the cholera epidemic, slowly wasting away the populace. But all this ugliness serves to do is provide a contrast to the beauty. A lovely thing is made lovelier when juxtaposed with something gruesome.
There is no literal painted veil in the movie, but the metaphorical implications are plentiful. An unintended interpretation could be for the film itself: it is gorgeous until you lift up the veil and find that there is little underneath.
Perhaps the failure of the film comes down to the editing and the choices made by director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore). The scenery and the score in the film are perfect, but too perfect in contrast with everything else. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the plot, or the acting, or the writing of the picture. But instead of giving us a gripping character-driven period drama, Curran gives us a series of still photographs: each one more stunning than the last, but only hinting at a larger story.