Behind 'The Painted Veil,' a tragic love story

The novels of W. Somerset Maugham were pooh-poohed by the literati almost from the start, and yet they're still read – or at least adapted into movies. In fact, few 20th-century novelists have been adapted more often, and some of the productions, such as "Of Human Bondage" and "The Letter," both with Bette Davis, or "Rain," with Walter Huston and Joan Crawford, were exceptional.

Now into the breach comes "The Painted Veil," which was filmed twice before, once with Greta Garbo, no less. The current version is not as royal, but it's not negligible, either.

Edward Norton and Naomi Watts star as Walter and Kitty, an ill-fated couple who marry in Shanghai in the 1920s. He's a middle-class doctor and bacteriologist, and she's flitty and upper-crust. Although Walter adores her, Kitty sees the marriage as a convenience and quickly enters into an affair with the British vice consul, played by Liev Schreiber, with the emphasis on vice.

When Walter gets wind of the shenanigans, he accepts a job in a remote rural village ravaged by a cholera epidemic and pressures Kitty to accompany him to avoid a scandal. It's clear to both that their chances of surviving are slim.

Like many Maugham adaptations set in the Far East, "The Painted Veil" is nothing if not atmospheric. The lush, foggy landscapes of the remote Chinese village are exotic in a way that Westerners will immediately recognize. Director John Curran and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner don't push their view of the Chinese as the Other, but it's there anyway.

So is the view of colonialists as saviors. Walter is so selfless in his devotion to the sick that he practically sports a halo, and this is true of Diana Rigg playing a Mother Superior as well. (A welcome exception: Toby Jones's gleefully irreverent civil servant.) Even though the nationalist, anti-British Chinese peasants are prominently featured, they lack the human weight of the Westerners.

In attempting to paint this Painted Veil as a tragic love story – Kitty realizes too late what a wonderful man she married – the filmmakers skimp some of its more disturbing undercurrents. It is never really brought out, for example, that Walter is, in effect, seeking to sacrifice both himself and his wife because of her affair. This saint is also a martyr, a punisher. And Kitty's absolution, it seems, is too easily won. She personifies Maugham's belief in the redemptive power of suffering.

The movie has a lush mysteriousness that represents a bygone, almost antique style of romanticism. It bears almost no resemblance to the current crop of mostly rat-a-tat movies. To view it is to enter a time warp, and there is some pleasure in stepping back into the languor. Grade: B

Rated PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images, and brief drug content.

Sex/Nudity: 6. Violence: 4. Profanity: 4 mild theological expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 10.

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