They say they don't make 'em like they used to. Maybe not, most of the time. But 2006's "The Painted Veil" is a worthy exception, a big, old-fashioned, tear-jerking romance, done up as sumptuously as modern moviemaking can do the job. It is quite an exceptional film.
How old-fashioned is the film? Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner adapted it from a 1925 novel (at least the first two-thirds of it) by W. Somerset Maugham ("Of Human Bondage," "The Razor's Edge," "The Moon and Sixpence"), which Hollywood twice reworked for the big screen previously, in 1934 with Greta Garbo and in 1957 (as "The Seventh Sin") with Eleanor Parker. This time, the movie stars Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, sensitively directed by John Curran ("We Don't Live Here Anymore"), with a lush musical score by Alexandre Desplat, piano solos by classical pianist Lang Lang, vast landscape photography by Stuart Dryburgh, vivid production design by Tu Juhua, and period costumes by Ruth Myers. It's a class act all the way, in the manner of an old Merchant-Ivory production.
This movie version of "The Painted Veil" is the story of a woman's progression from being spoiled and pampered to coming into a mature understanding of herself and the world around her. Perhaps more so than the Maugham novel, the movie makes a solid feminist statement; although, to be fair, it suggests by inference that men can also know such growth as the story's female protagonist experiences. "The Painted Veil" is decidedly not a "woman's picture" just because it is by its nature a romance.
The setting is China in 1925, the year of the book's publication. The plot line involves two people, Dr. Walter Fane (Norton), a shy, serious young bacteriologist dedicated to his work in China, and Kitty (soon-to-be) Fane, a light, frivolous, somewhat selfish young woman, whose well-off family wants very much for her to wed. When Walter and Kitty marry, it is because she attracts Walter's attention, and because she needs the convenience and security of a husband. They both realize it is not a marriage of mutual love, but at least they have an "understanding."
How formal is Walter? Outdoors in China's most blazing heat, he wears a tie and a vest. And he says "It is I" to his wife when she asks who is knocking on her door. How vapid is Kitty? Her family and social tradition have taught her to do nothing but marry and have children. She plays cards and the piano. And does little else.
You can see in an instant that Kitty will soon get bored with Walter, and she does, sooner rather than later. Ensconced in her new life in Shanghai, she tires of Walter's absorption in his medicine and his apparent indifference to her. Meeting a cad at the British Embassy, the Vice-consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), they have an affair. Walter, not entirely stupid, quickly learns of it and retaliates. He demands that she accompany him to the interior of China where a cholera epidemic has broken out. In effect, he appears to want her dead, or he wants to threaten her with death, and it is here that the romance really begins.
"The Painted Veil" is a love story in reverse, a tale of two people falling in love after their marriage vows. Slowly, Kitty begins to see a new side of life in the misery of the cholera outbreak and China's brewing nationalist revolution, and she gains a new respect for her husband's commitment to saving lives. She begins to help Walter, as well as the children of a nearby orphanage, to feel useful for the first time in her life, to find purpose in her being, and to find some redemption for her soul.
People are never ordinary. People are complex. And people hurt one another. It's the healing that's important. "The Painted Veil" offers up a vision of hope in the midst of unreasonable social rules and despicable acts of cruelty. Contempt, hatred, adultery, attempted murder, cholera, a national uprising--so much ugliness set amidst so much spectacular natural beauty. The juxtaposition is a strong point of the film.
Edward Norton puts in another of his characteristically persuasive performances, undergoing three complete and convincing personality changes in the story, proving once again that he is among the handful of finest actors in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Watts demonstrates she can do more than play second-fiddle to an ape or a tape recording by exhibiting two distinct personality changes herself. These are flesh-and-blood people with real longings and genuine passions. We care about them.
"The Painted Veil" moves slowly, lyrically, luxuriantly along, and it rewards one's patience not only with moving performances from its stars, Watts and Norton, but with equally refined performances from Schreiber as the unprincipled Charlie, Toby Jones as a sympathetic Deputy Commissioner, and Diana Rigg as an understanding Mother Superior. The scenery is gorgeous, the music quiet but effective, the themes universal. "The Painted Veil" is a finely crafted product that can hardly fail to touch one's heart.
If ever a movie cried out for a high-definition transfer, it's this one, and I hope there is such a product in the offing. I mean, for Warner Bros. to release "Beerfest" in HD and then not to do the same for "The Painted Veil" might be grounds for criminal negligence.
In the meantime, the standard-definition transfer we do have is quite good. It displays the movie's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio in dimensions that measure about 2.20:1 across my screen, given a bit of overscanning and all. A high bit rate and a widescreen enhanced for 16x9 televisions also help to reproduce deep, richly intense colors and moderately sharp object delineation. The hues intentionally fluctuate from soft, almost pastel, to bright and glowing, depending on the situation and mood of the scene. The detail in close-ups is excellent, although medium shots sometimes suffer from being a tad fuzzy. Then, too, the picture gets a little darker than nature might have intended, but most of the time the disc presents things pretty well.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack nicely opens up the background music with a realistic ambient bloom in the surrounds. There is a welcome high-end sheen, a smooth midrange response, a fine dynamic clout, and a surprisingly powerful bass that heightens the film's dramatic impact. While we would not expect any big action-movie noises from the rear channels, we do get some minor goings on like the sounds of horses' hooves and crowds of people.
Oddly, WB chose not to include much in the way of extras on the disc. Perhaps because the film did not fare well theatrically, they did not want to spend any more money on the DVD than necessary. Or perhaps they are planning an elaborate HD-DVD special edition with a picture-in-picture "In-Movie Experience," a director's cut, and a ton of behind-the-scenes documentaries. I don't know. In any case, it's the movie that matters, and the movie is well worth the price of the disc. What we do get is a widescreen trailer; thirty scene selections, but no chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
"The Painted Veil" is a grand love story, perhaps lacking in the ultimate sweep of a "Gone With the Wind" or "Doctor Zhivago" but conveying the same sort of emotional range. It's a simple story about that most complex subject on Earth, human relationships, and it says more in its two hours than most novels express in a thousand pages. It's a lovely, sad, lonely, dispiriting, yet strangely uplifting motion picture.