Both The Painted Veil and The Last King of Scotland (above) are literary adaptations about white Europeans stuck in faraway places, using humanitarian missions as a cover to get away from the world they know. In both cases, it’s the superlative acting that carries the day.
Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel, the movie stars Naomi Watts as Kitty, a social butterfly from London who avoids spinsterhood by marrying middle-class doctor Walter Fane (Edward Norton). Driven and idealistic, Walter’s also an incredibly uptight man, and Kitty basically marries him so he can take her away from her mother and to Shanghai, where he spends most of the year working. Once there, she quickly gets bored and starts an affair with Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), the British vice consul and Walter’s boss. When Walter finds out, his reaction is terrible. After brutally stripping away her delusions that Charlie loves her, he uses the threat of divorce and public shame to drag her to a remote rural area of central China that’s being ravaged by a cholera epidemic. While Walter conducts field research, Kitty sits in a bamboo hut with nothing to do except wait to be killed by either the plague or British-hating Chinese Nationalists.
This film reportedly has been Norton’s pet project — he is listed as a producer as well as a star — and he’s certainly the reason for the movie’s biggest departure from its source, which is the softening of Walter’s character. From purely a storytelling perspective, this move makes sense. In the book, the character remains aloof and unsympathetic throughout. (Maugham reportedly based Walter on his own brother, who more or less rejected him after learning of his homosexuality.) In the film, Walter’s nobility eventually comes back to the fore while he’s trying to quell the epidemic, and Kitty comes to appreciate him, which wouldn’t have happened had they stayed in London.
None of this is spelled out in the script, which cuts out the book’s stagey exchanges of dialogue. The subtext is still plain to see in the performances of Norton and especially Watts, playing Kitty with the combination of surface fragility and inner strength that is her calling card. While both actors sport wobbly British accents, their rapport is flawless as Walter and Kitty’s mutual loathing gives way to understanding — surrounded by so much genuine misery, they lose their appetite for making each other miserable. Eventually, husband and wife fall in love for real, and this unlikely development is made credible by the actors’ collective efforts. (Speaking of which, let’s not forget the good supporting turn by Toby “The Other Truman Capote” Jones as a sad, gravel-voiced deputy commissioner with a taste for opium and local prostitutes.) The intimate love story forms a nice little movie tucked away inside this big, expensive Merchant-Ivoryesque epic. It isn’t struggling to get out, though. It exists quite easily within The Painted Veil’s confines.
The Painted Veil
Starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. Directed by John Curran. Written by Ron Nyswaner, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel. Rated PG-13.