"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.]