A lush period piece based on the novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil is highlighted by stalwart performances from Edward Norton and Naomi Watts and a quietly melancholic script by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia).
It's 1925, and London socialite Kitty (Watts) is getting pressure (especially from her domineering mother) to find a husband. It's hardly love at first sight when she meets Walter (Norton), a dry and reserved bacteriologist who knows he doesn't make a great first impression, but promises that "he improves greatly upon acquaintance," which is smooth enough for her to marry him. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Kitty is whisked off to Shanghai and soon finds herself bored, yet bemused, by the imperial British lifestyle. It's of little surprise that she soon begins an adulterous affair with British diplomat Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber).
By the time Walter learns of Kitty's trysts, we are a mere 20 minutes into the two-hour movie, and this is where things both slow down and get more interesting. Scorned and dejected, Walter accepts a job in a remote Chinese village that is suffering from a cholera epidemic. After informing Kitty about the dangers of this disease which is an intestinal infection that causes vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration, and often leads to death, Walter forces her to join him in the countryside.
There's so much subtlety in the script and performances that it's easy to forget you're watching a glorified soap opera in a sprawling, exotic locale. Credit for this goes to Norton, who worked for six years to get the film made, and Watts, whose conflicted heroine is endearing regardless of her indiscretions. Although Walter does overtly cruel things, such as not telling her about immunization shots until after they arrive, most of his contempt for her is noticeable only in looks of blank disgrace; you get the impression that he brought both of them there to die, and that it gives him great delight to force her to live in fear in what he hopes are the waning days of her life.
For her part, Watts is frightened yet understatedly strong, or at least slowly becomes so after realizing she has little choice but to fight for her life. She finds some solace in Waddington (Toby Jones), the British deputy commissioner of the village, but her tart transformation into a humanist who assists Walter in the village represents patient, subdued acting at its best.
Director John Curran's film moves too slowly at times, and incorporates an unnecessary flashback structure as it begins, but on the whole, the pacing fits the arc of the storyline very well. Curiously, though, the protagonists' hatred through most of the film leads the viewer to a similar sentiment: Walter has been so emotionally distant that by the end of the film, it's hard to garner much feeling for him. This leaves our emotional attachment solely in the conflicted Kitty, who is sympathetic but also, due to her adultery, not altogether worthy of our deepest concern.
Still, The Painted Veil is an effective drama that allows its performances to occupy the forefront of a busy story. See it for the acting, the strong score by Alexandre Desplat and the gorgeous scenery.