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John Curran's "The Painted Veil"

Pretty Maugham remake showcases actor Edward Norton at his brittle best .

Review by Chris Knipp
Maugham's colonial stories aren't really about fine scenery. They're about prickly heat and disillusion.
Though W. Somerset Maugham wrote novels and this movie is the third screen adaptation of one of them, his facile pessimism found its greatest expression in the short story form, and John Curran's adaptation of Maugham's novel, Painted Veil, has a short story arc.

Maugham characters are often trapped in fatal either/or's, like the young man in "The Alien Corn." This story became one segment of a classic English film collection of Maugham tales, "Quartet." In this one, Harold French directed Dirk Bogarde as George Bland, who, when told he will never be a fine pianist, goes and shoots himself. Real life tends to make more room for compromises—like becoming a piano teacher, for instance.

Maugham was a great chronicler of Brits being devoured by their own imperial outposts. He felt for his colonial wives but he gave them little to look forward to. They were bored, and as their husbands turned to drink they turned to adultery. They often made foolish choices, and when they did the bad consequences were rarely reversible. Kitty in "The Painted Veil" (Naomi Watts, taking the role played by Garbo in 1934) goes to what was originally Hong Kong (in the movie, it's Shanghai) with a husband she agreed thoughtlessly to marry just to get away from her mother and escape being compared to a sister with better marriage offers. In the colonial setting where her microbiologist husband Dr. Thomas Fane (Edward Norton) turns out to be a self-important prig obsessed with his work, she falls heir to the usual colonial boredom. She relieves it in an affair with a more full-bodied and worldly individual, the colonial official Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber). Fane finds out about his wife's affair and punishes her by offering a cruel either/or. Either she will come with him to a remote place in the country where there is a cholera outbreak, or he will divorce her for adultery. It's not much of a choice. In 1925, the risk of cholera wasn't as bad as a public, acrimonious divorce. She goes.

Maugham gives his story a pattern not unlike that of Hemingway's famous "Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber." In that story, a man who seems a wimp to his wife wins her back by turning out to be brave on a safari in Africa—and then promptly dies. Fane too displays fine character that wins his wife's love—then dies. Though their first month or so at the outpost is deadly, Kitty comes to admire Fane when she learns of his own bravery and dedication in combating the local epidemic. She turns serious herself and starts to work in a French orphanage where Diana Rigg is the Mother Superior. Love grows up between Kitty and Thomas, and then Thomas contracts cholera at a yet more remote and more disease-ridden location, and expires with Kitty by his side. When we see Kitty back on a street in London five years later her with her little boy, who may be Walter's or Townsend's, she's become a good woman. Townsend turns up, but she declines without a moment's hesitation his suggestion that they get together again while he's in town. This screenplay has softened Maugham's typically more cynical plot. In the book, Kitty goes back to Townsend and is seduced by him again.

Watts is perfect in sheer blouses and under fancy umbrellas and handles a range of emotions with her usual warmth and conviction. Of course, lacking the unearthly beauty of an icon like Garbo, she cannot embody the frustrated, tragic woman with the same perfection. She's a better actress, but what does acting matter when your competition is Garbo? Norton is excellent here in a role that fits his own brittle manner as well as the natty Edwardian ensembles fit his slimmed-down body. He fades into his character even more convincingly than in his other starring role this year as the remote and mysterious Eisenheim in Neil Berger's "The Illusionist." Norton is a brilliantly self-conscious actor, like Kevin Spacey but without Spacey's fearful presence. Norton seems remote, but give him the right role and he soars. "Infamous"' Toby Jones is convincing as Waddington, the local official who's gone native. He has the appropriate simpatico but burnt-out quality. The authenticity of the crowd scenes was obviously aided by the presence of Chinese co-producers.

John Curran's film, with a neatly delineated screenplay by Ron Nyswanner ("Mrs. Soffel," "Gross Anatomy," "Philadelphia"), is an opportunity for audiences to have a romantic Masterpiece Theater sort of experience in a beautiful exotic setting, with nice looking Twenties costumes, party scenes, period Chinese crowds, rickshaws and sedan chairs and lovely hills and greenery, even a big delicate water wheel that appears built out of dark matchsticks. But Maugham's colonial stories aren't really about fine scenery. They're about prickly heat and disillusion, and a much more effective version of one is Wyler's 1940 "The Letter," with Bette Davis, or the aforementioned "Quartet" (1949) or the equally brilliant British filmed story collection, " Encore" (1951), where the settings don't threaten to overwhelm the emotions as much as in this pretty production.

©Chris Knipp 2006. Knipp is a California-based artist and writer. For more of his work, or to contact him, visit

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This story was published on December 27, 2006.