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the painted veil The Painted Veil
Directed by:
John Curran
Cast: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diane Rigg

Written by:
Ricardo Barberini

July 18,  2007

This story was written more than 80 years ago by Somerset Maugham the colonial English writer.  Many of his novels have been made into plays or movies.  His stories are generally dark and many of them have the premise of betrayal of relationship between men and women as their central theme. Generally, it was the woman who was the unfaithful partner.


In the Painted Veil, an English Bacteriologist Walter Fane played by Edward Norton, courts a free spirited English girl Kitty played by Naomi Watts.  He has fallen in love with her and wants to marry her and take her to China where he is doing research on bacteria.  Kitty is really a 1920’s version of today’s party girls.  She does not love Walter and finds him boring but is anxious to get out of her parent’s house and have her own independence.  Shortly, after marriage, they move to China.  Kitty is soon bored with her life there and jumps into bed with Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) who is the British Vice Consul in Shanghai  and  the first man who shows any interest in her.

The husband, Walter Fane, finds out and offers her a choice.  Divorce as an adulterous woman or going with him to the interior of China to look after a town afflicted with Cholera.  Knowing the type of man that she is sleeping with, he offers a quiet divorce if the other man is willing to marry her.  When Kitty approaches Charlie with the idea, she discovers that Charlie Townsend is not interested in her as a person.  He is a philandering husband who uses his position and charm to seduce married women. 

The devastated Kitty has no choice but to go to the Chinese hinterland with Walter.  Remember it is set in the 1920’s.  An adulterous divorced woman had little chance of finding a job let alone a new husband.

The couple arrive in a lush area which is beset by hunger and disease.  The previous doctor is dead and  the only other foreigners are the French nuns who have a convent in the heart of the City and the British deputy commissioner a Mr. Waddington (Toby Jones)  who leaves nearby with his Chinese mistress.

With nothing to do and nowhere to go Kitty sinks into a sad depression.  At first she tries to send for Charlie Townsend but is gently dissuaded by Waddington who knows Charlie and  hints that she would be only debasing herself by asking for his help. 

With the Cholera raging on, Walter spends most of his time attending to patients and fighting Chinese superstition.   In his efforts, he is helped by Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong) who is assigned to protect him and the Europeans in that hostile xenophobic Chinese city. 

Kitty visits the French run convent and gradually finds happiness in helping the young orphans.  Waddington plays a major role in steadying their relationships and soon she recognizes the shallowness of men like Charlie Townsend and genuinely falls in love with her husband. 

Meanwhile, Kitty discovers that she is pregnant and, much to her displeasure, cannot tell who the real father is.   A few days later, Walter catches Cholera and dies in Kitty’s arms after a long battle with the disease. 

The final scene, which is quite satisfying, flashes forward to five years later in London where Kitty and her son meet the knave Charlie Townsend in the street.  Charlie tries to rekindle a relationship but is abruptly cut off by Kitty. 

This movie was originally made in 1934 as a vehicle for the then super star Greta Garbo.  Since they could not get rid of her Swedish accent the producers changed her nationality to be an Austrian.  They also made the father a doctor as well and Walter Fane was supposedly her father’s best assistant.   The ending in the 1934 movie was quite different.  The husband recovered and Charlie Townsend made his way across China to find Kitty and ask her to marry him.  Kitty refused and stayed with the husband that she now truly loved.

The original version of this movie was filmed in the backlots of Hollywood studios.  Yet the story was powerful enough to maintain its originality through more than seventy years.  This reviewer saw the original movie only a year ago and found the story and the acting remarkable.  The current movie was actually filmed mostly on location in China.

Edward Norton, has now become a major star and for a good reason.  He is a great actor and generally selects his roles carefully.   Naomi Watts was surprisingly great in this movie.  She went through the portrayal of the transition from a foot loose girl to a mature sensitive young woman with ease.   We feel that Toby Jones understood the role of Waddington.  Waddington is the person who glues this tale together.  Without his presence, the story would unfold quickly.  We actually think that Waddington was based on Somerset Maugham’s own personality and perhaps a similar role that he played during his time in the Orient.  Toby Jones by underplaying his personae managed it brilliantly. 

Liev Schrieber and Diana Riggs also had small parts in this movie.   Diana looked pathetic trying to play a French mother superior with a stupid fake accent. Liev was effective as a knave.  As for Anthony Wong who plays Colonel Yu.  Even though he is actually Chinese he comes across as a Westerner’s expectation of what a good hearted Chinese colonel should act like.  He does not act Chinese!  And that is the director’s fault.

We would strongly recommend renting this movie.  It would be nice for the whole family to watch this together.  It has a sad ending true; but you will feel good about it.  Fidelity and sex are not in the same league.  In the long run, and given the chance, true character and love will overcome other feelings.

We give this movie starstarstarand recommend it for the whole family.

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