Title: The Painted Veil
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: John Curran
Screenwriters: Ron Nyswaner
Starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber
Certain strata of society used to be more polite, but I’m not sure people ever were. There’s something instinctively compelling about this notion, which is why stories of cruelty lurking just below unerringly formal facades don’t get old, and which is why, I think, The Painted Veil is such a purely entertaining film instead of the difficult one that the plot description might suggest. You wouldn’t think that a movie about a cuckolded husband who decides to commit effective murder-suicide by dragging his cheatin’ wife into the middle of a cholera epidemic would be a terrific date movie, but I swear it is.
There’s just something about the portrait of high society shown in the opening scenes of The Painted Veil, over and above the appeal of the more traditional romanticism that pervades the third act. We see a perfectly mannered conversation between Kitty (Naomi Watts), an upper-class socialite, and her mother, that is suddenly broken by a sharp, offhand question: “How much longer do you expect your father to go on supporting you?” Aside from being enormously fun to watch, this sort of barely contained hostility makes it easy to understand why Kitty is willing to enter into a loveless marriage with a considerably less wealthy doctor (a stellar Edward Norton) lured by the promise of running off to Shanghai, which is roughly as far from her vile mother as possible.
Kitty herself is no catch, alas: though beautiful, she has virtually no interest in Norton’s hapless Walter Fane, and few compunctions about having a fling with a local civil servant (Liev Schreiber) who is, of course, “happily married” himself. By the time Walter issues his ultimatum — come to cholera-ravaged rural China or I divorce you for adultery — I was all but rubbing my hands together with glee: such grandly melodramatic gestures are hard to come by in the “high society” of December Oscar hopefuls.
John Curran’s film, meanwhile, keeps things interesting by staying a step ahead of us, not in the sense that the events of the plot are unpredictable (quite the contrary, as the last half of the film makes pretty much all the expected twists and turns), but rather in that the characters’ motivations often only become clear after the fact. The fact that Kitty and Walter’s marriage is essentially a sham, notwithstanding the latter’s fervent hopes, is not, for example, made abundantly clear through lots of hand-wringing and weeping; Kitty simply hoofs it to Shanghai, and her reasons for doing so are for us to infer from the preceding scenes before being crystallized later in the film. Consistent with the modus operandi of Kitty’s ilk, the film’s melodrama, though abundant, at least at first stays under the surface.
Things change a bit once Kitty and Walter settle into their digs at the rural Chinese outpost, where Walter has volunteered to assist with disease control at great personal risk to himself and his wife. Kitty, removed from everything she knows and bored to tears, takes to volunteering at the local orphanage, and starts seeing qualities in Walter (who does his best to ignore her) that she never noticed before. Walter, too, rediscovers his protective instinct toward his wife and instead of resigning to die of cholera, begins to take his task quite seriously indeed.
Here The Painted Veil takes a more conventional tack, and there’s a point too early on where the course of the rest of the story becomes dishearteningly clear. But the film is well done until the end, and the finale is affecting though we saw it coming; Curran has a disarming way of bringing dignity to the inevitable treacle. His success is evident in the very last scene, which is suffused with nobility and a certain truth though it could have seemed entirely ridiculous. That’s really true for all of The Painted Veil, which finds just the right balance between the familiar and the surprising to become one of the season’s best entertainments.