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by Nick Pinkerton
December 20, 2006 2:59 AM
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REVIEW | Love and Marriage: John Curran's "The Painted Veil"

Edward Norton in John Curran's "The Painted Veil." Photo: Glen Wilson

"As if a woman ever loved a man for his virtue," scoffs Kitty Fane, heroine of W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel "The Painted Veil" - the line remains intact in the new film version. This touches on something raw, the insoluble dilemma that Kitty's heart is rent upon: the people we most esteem or respect are very often not the people that we most want to sleep with, or even talk to.

"The Painted Veil" tells the story of the Fanes, a British couple in Republican China: cuckolded husband Walter, a shy, serious man of science, and his flighty wife, Kitty. She married Walter without love, seizing him as the nearest escape route from her parents in a moment of panic. When Dr. Walter uncovers his wife's deception; adoration hardens into hate. He forces her to accompany him to the scene of a cholera outbreak in the country's interior, where he's volunteered; the implicit intent is that neither of them should return.

"He dominated the movies at a time when movies were the lingua franca of the world," Gore Vidal wrote of Maugham. Indeed by IMDb.com's count he's amassed 120 writing credits through various adaptations - MGM's twice-filmed "The Painted Veil," in 1934 with Greta Garbo, as an execrable heap of studio-bound exoticism, and in 1957 as "The Seventh Sin." Was Maugham the first novelist to write with the intent of selling to Hollywood? Nobody reads him much anymore, and I can't mount a passionate argument as to why anyone should, but it's clear he had a way with stories.

Producers/stars Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, with director John Curran (who previously worked with Watts on "We Don't Live Here Anymore") and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, have used the premise of "The Painted Veil" to launch a professional, delicately performed, and very emotional movie (special notice is due "Infamous" star Toby Jones, who brings an adroit combination of tenderness and rot to his provincial deputy commissioner). The property's been expanded and renovated, opened up to tasteful, luxurious widescreen scenery, given lush wall-to-wall scoring, and provided the social conscience that befits such a class act coproduction. The old place has never looked better.

But: Maugham's novel never quite presumes to break through the impasse between moral admiration and sexual passion. Norton initially effaces his handsomeness with a pinched expression and thin, piqued voice, but as Kitty's narcissism recedes in the face of tragedy and she comes to appreciate her husband's selflessness, he blossoms into a picturesquely brooding, full-fledged leading man. It's a neat piece of acting, if a bit like the girl in a teen comedy who only needs to shed her glasses to become Prom Queen. This Walter Fane gets to save the village, his girl, and even toss her a proper ravishing before the credits roll.

It's certainly a more optimistic story than Maugham wrote; and why shouldn't we be more optimistic about sex than he, who grew up queer in an era of outright witch hunts? But that's just clouding the issue: this oddly sanitized "Painted Veil" concludes that - why not? - virtue can trade as sex appeal through a miracle of emotional alchemy. And while most epic romances are necessarily flecked with lies, this one's a whopper.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]

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3 Comments

  • dskolnick | December 21, 2006 5:59 AMReply

    It is absurd to suggest that this review is biased because it didn't spend time discussing Naomi Watts. I think she gives an excellent performance in The Painted Veil, and I would have discussed that if I were writing this review, but it is the reviewer's prerogative to choose what elements of a film they want discuss. A more serious failing was the off-hand dismissal of W. Somerset Maugham. He was a perfect example of a kind of popular, serious, middle-brow author that doesn't really exist anymore. However, many of his works are still in print, still read, and not without merit.

  • melvotaw | December 20, 2006 7:43 AMReply

    The idea that virtue can trade as sex appeal is not a lie. Just read the many blog entries on the Internet regarding Mr. Norton. Women are attracted to him primarily because of his altruism. It sets him apart from flashier movie stars. Nothing is sexier to most of the women I know, and it's absolutely believable that Watts' character would come to this as she matures.

  • steandric | December 20, 2006 4:30 AMReply

    is this a review of the film or is this a profile article for edward norton? with due respect to norton who is a fine actor, your article here is slighting the official LEAD naomi watts who is receiving raves everywhere else for her excellent performance in the film. you could have at least say something so that your article would not have looked that odd and biased, imo.