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  The Painted Veil
John Curran

Iona Firouzabadi
posted 5 July 2007

The beauty of some stories is in their telling, and The Painted Veil is beautifully told. Based on Somerset Maugham’s oriental novel, its blighted fatalism leaves little room for unpredictability of plot. Director John Curran and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner meticulously evoke an era of loss, nobility and bitterness. The repressed emotions of an English marriage make the screen blister - Naomi Watts and Edward Norton have stiff-upper-lips and cut-glass accents to rival even Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. In fact, from its psychology to its cinematography, there’s a lot about this picture that echoes the films of David Lean.

We open in the rain and mists of rural China in the 1920s - a couple wait with suitcases underneath bamboo umbrellas. But our story begins months earlier, back amongst the shifting mores of London society. Kitty (Naomi Watts) is the daughter of an upper-class family – she has the breezy air of an emancipated post-war woman, however her mother is desperate to see her married. At a party she meets Walter (Edward Norton) - a government scientist, he is essentially a civil servant with a specialism in bacteriology. For Walter it is love at first sight, for Kitty it is far from it. Bacteria just aren’t fun. She accepts Walter out of expediency – making a marriage of convenience. She runs away from her mother’s derision and into the arms of Walter, whose job will carry her all the way to Shanghai. But when she arrives in the East she lands with a bump – colonial life is small-scale and dull, and kitty comes to specialise in those thoroughly modern qualities of idleness and boredom.

What follows is an affair - and then an enforced trip into the interior of China. Walter seeks out a peculiarly sadomasochistic punishment for Kitty’s transgression: he volunteers to become the doctor for a disease-ridden village, plunging himself and his wife into isolation and danger - hatred in a time of cholera.

Kitty could so easily come across merely as the spoilt child of Empire, annoying and vacuous, but Naomi Watts and her director John Curran bring out far more complexity in her. And importantly the story doesn’t judge her for not being as serious as her husband. Edward Norton’s Walter is tight-lipped, quiet, buttoned-up and wounded – bitter, but not cold. Both performances are subtle and unsentimental. Toby Jones is understated and sympathetic as the slowly revealed character of Waddington, an Empire ex-pat who’s gone a little native. And the figure of Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) provides a measured and insightful window into burgeoning Chinese nationalism.

The Painted Veil was shot on location in the Guangxi province of southern China, against a landscape that is both eerie and remarkable, populated by strange hills. Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography conjures a sense both of colonial watercolours - and of Lean. This film might also remind you of Ang Lee’s Remains of the Day and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. It is not derivative or hackneyed, but it has a similar level of class, and trades in similar themes. It’s surprising it didn’t garner more gongs during this year’s awards season.

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