Strangers (to each other) in a strange land
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
THE PAINTED VEIL: Directed by John Curran. Written by Ron Nyswaner, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg and Liev Schreiber. Warner Independent Pictures, 2006. 125 minutes. PG-13.
Rich, beautiful and subtly wrenching, the latest adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel The Painted Veil is both a polished period piece and a lyrical, unlikely romance. As you watch the relationship between Kitty and Walter Fane, an unhappily married couple played to precision by a sulky Naomi Watts and a stiff-lipped Edward Norton, you may feel a bit torn between the classic sense the film creates visually and the sassy modernity that Watts offers at times. Adding to this rift is Alexandre Desplat's Golden Globe-winning score, which stretches across the space between the English couple and the Chinese setting. But both of these rifts are purposeful, adding depth to the divide between Kitty and Walter.
The Painted Veil hopscotches through the Fanes' early years, in which he falls in love with the spoiled, upper-class beauty and she falls for the chance to get away from her mother. They marry so swiftly we aren't even shown the wedding. In Shanghai, where Walter works as a bacteriologist, unhappy Kitty has an affair with Charles Townsend (a wonderfully self-possessed Liev Schreiber). Walter's decision, when he discovers her adultery, is one of shocking cruelty: He will divorce Kitty, or she will accompany him to a remote village stricken with cholera. What follows is never surprising, but surprise is not the point in this story, which depicts the absorption (she in herself, he in his work) that allows Kitty and Walter to live so distantly from each other and to seem so blind to the tumult of 1920s China. In pristine garments, holding a delicate parasol, Kitty seems unlikely to ever adapt; Walter, his thin face turned determinedly away from Kitty, seems as if he will never really see her again. When change comes, in director John Curran's detailed, layered film, it comes hard, for better and, inevitably, for worse.