Friday, 27 April 2007

The Painted Veil- Review by guest contributor Joseph Wren

Director: John Curran
Screenwriter: Ron Nyswaner,
W. Somerset Maugham (Novel)
Runtime: 125 minutes
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: 27 April

John Curran’s follow up to the emotionally raw, underrated indie We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), is the third film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 historical romance novel The Painted Veil. A Chinese co-production starring Naomi Watts and Ed Norton, this is the story of an unhappy married English couple who cope with their inner demons amongst a cholera epidemic and political uprising in China. Norton is the bacteriologist Walter, and Watts is the upper class Kitty, who plays the piano and says some depressing things about flowers before marrying Walter to escape the banal existence of being rich and spoiled in England.

After a brief courtship and marriage, the newlyweds hastily leave England for Shanghai, where Walter must go to do whatever it is that bacteriologists do. Walter is romantically inept, leaving his bored wife no choice but to hop into the sack with his strapping colleague Charlie (Liev Schreiber). Ed Norton switches into creepy guy mode, and apparently we’re supposed to care, but this all happens too quickly to really register any sort of emotional impact.

Naomi Watts, in yet another Oscar-baiting role where she gets to play a woman going through an emotional transformation, is getting very good at this sort of thing. Time and time again, Curran shows us her big watery blue eyes and slightly parted lips – Watts spends a good part of this film appearing as if she’s on the brink of tears. Norton, on the other hand, is painfully dull as a character, who on the surface, seems to have a lot of interesting things going on. Toby Jones (Infamous) provides comic relief as the quirky, boozing neighbour, but is clumsily used. Schreiber simply disappears for most of the exposition, only to appear in the epilogue in a scene that futilely begs for tears.

Scattered throughout much of the film is some of the most stunning scenery you’ll see on screen all year – lush, moist green grass fields that are watched over by towering mountains that, when seen through faint sunshine and mist, look like they could be still ghosts from a Miyazaki film. Alexandre Desplat’s score is equally mesmerizing, making this film an aural and visual delight.
The Painted Veil aspires to be a big, sweeping, Anthony Minghella-type of romantic epic, and the source material provides plenty of emotional ammunition: adultery, political revolution in a foreign land, sweeping epidemic, complicated pregnancy, etc. Curran's work in infidelity dramas makes him a good choice for this adaptation, but he is too hypnotized by the location to develop the romance until too late. With the flood of immature twaddle in the cinema these days, this is a perfectly fine film for adults to see, and though quite flawed, is absolutely gorgeous.

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