This love story has Kitty meeting young, intelligent, shy and somewhat dull Dr. Walter Fane, whose forte is the study of infectious diseases, and the convenient marriage that she finds herself committed to. It is in this web of intrigue that they head for China, only after Walter discovers Kitty's infidelity with one dashing and witty diplomat Charlie Townsend. So much as to hide her from herself and to help thwart a cholera outbreak, this is a marriage more than on the rocks. This is a cold, indifferent and loveless partnership in a vast unknown and deadly environment that will test both these flightless lovebirds and with the hardships and tolerances more than any had ever anticipated. A visual delight amid the pain and suffering of a dying people and failing marriage. Will a cure be found for both, before it's too late?Written by
The film was originally being developed by Yari's Stratus Film. When Stratus executive, Mark Gill, left for Warner Independent, he brought this project with him. See more »
The river moves very slowly, indicating minimal slope. Yet the bamboo aqueduct, which is supposed to bring water down-river, bypassing the burial ground, has significant slope. See more »
[contemplating roses in a flower shop]
Silly, really. They'll die in a week - it's hardly worth the cost
[to Walter Junior]
What do you think?
I think they're quite nice.
[Walter Junior smiles, as does Kitty]
I think you're right.
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When I was nearly eighteen, I married. To the prettiest girl at art college. Lack of confidence vanished with virginity. I loved her with unbearable, blinding intensity. We painted each other with unquenchable desire. What could go wrong?
Our film's title goes back to a stanza:
"Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe"
Shelley's poem furnishes the title of Somerset Maugham's oriental love story. That classic, set in the 1920s, has three times been made a film. Our latest offering comes like five-year incense from Sinophile Edward Norton, with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and producer Sara Colleton.
Two people, whose characters are a million miles apart, wed in London. They travel to Hong Kong. Suddenly they can no longer play the game that society has set them. Facing their own true natures is a journey of discovery greater than geographical distance. Visually and emotionally restrained (given the passions and breath-taking scenery involved) the Painted Veil shines with intellectual integrity. If only you can get excited enough about it.
Brilliant bacteriologist Walter Fane (Edward Norton) only occasionally gives way to anything as unscientific as showing feelings. Kitty (Naomi Watts) is warm and natural, but marries Walter more because it seems like a sensible thing to do than for any over-riding love. She enjoys tennis and nice things. Walter derides such superficialities. And Walter speaks only when he "has something to say." Kitty has an affair with government official Charlie Townsend, a charming and seductive married man who "made a science of popularity." Walter correctly labels her as stupid to think he wouldn't find out. Their trip to a cholera-infested village of Mei-tan-fu, a professional honour for Walter, becomes his journey of revenge.
Walter's sense of superiority is impenetrable. Even though he vomits at his first sight of suffering, he finds a way to save much of the village from disease. Kitty is meanwhile wasting away through loneliness. They have yet to discover the real vibrancy behind each other's mask. As they attempt to do so, the film challengingly asserts the contradiction of sexual versus spiritual love.
An emotionally unintelligent man discovering the tenderness and complexity of another human being, and a good (yet fairly shallow) woman appreciating her own potential - and the value of another's great mind. But the symbol of the 'veil' goes much further. Norton says he wanted to 'lift the veil' on issues facing China in the 1920s. "If you're going to make a film set in China during the period, I think there's got to be a reason for doing it other than the inherent romanticism of the location."
To Kitty, the work of the nuns (headed by Mother Superior, Diana Rigg) is laudable, especially with orphans. Walter, on the other hand, points out that they also pay parents for their children so as to indoctrinate them with Catholicism. Every Westerner is a colonialist of some sort, fuelling increasing resentment with the locals. Walter, carrying his torch of medicine rather than the fire of armaments, believes he is 'neutral'. He is somehow 'above' the armed soldiers that he relies on. Yet his rationalism is shallow, limited to believing that if only people would embrace Western ways they would have it so much easier.
Kitty stays with Walter initially out of 'duty' but comes to question it when the Mother Superior says, "Duty is only washing one's hands when they are dirty." The philosophical challenge, echoed from Maugham, is whether duty and love can become one. This is the central tenet of the film. Walter, indubitably, seems to be following a higher 'duty' in saving people from cholera. Yet it is the experiencing of love in one form or another that gives meaning and fulfilment. That 'love' must be genuine but also under the domain of duty - else it leads astray. Walter's initial 'love' is respectful, exact - and only with the lights switched off. Kitty's is that of a gifted dilettante.
The performances are finely chiselled. Watts combines convincing sensuality and tenderness yet still gives her character room to express deep emotion later on. When Walter discovers her sexual liaison with Charles (played by Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts' real-life partner), he goes into heartless-bastard-mode. Norton (who majored in history at Yale) produces a convincing portrait of someone who is sharply intelligent and as precise as a scalpel. His painful awakening to the fact that humans are more than complex microbes is superbly judged. Polar opposites of smooth sleaze-bag Charles and straight-as-a-die Walter are movingly adjudicated by Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones). He has more insight into relationships than the rest of them put together, yet are we misled by his persona? "He is a good man," says the young Chinese woman that we saw him tussling naked and unashamed with moments earlier.
Going beyond what we believe another to be, whether we put them on a pedestal or in derision, may only be the first stage. Being away from familiar surroundings leaves nothing to fall back on. No painted veil.
This adaptation takes excusable liberties with the plot. It is true to the spirit of Shelley's poem (I had to look it up to fully appreciate that, I think). It is a finely observed colonial-era drama that holds attention with a subdued dignity, quietly resisting the enticement to do a Merchant and Ivory. To the casual viewer it sometimes hangs between wasted opportunity and insipidness. But its themes are lovingly executed with skill and exactitude.
My marriage lasted precisely one year. We both decided to travel. If we had been isolated in a distant country like the protagonists of this film, we may have discovered a more genuine love. Or killed each other. Unlike this sumptuous historical and emotional travelogue, the games we play don't always paint a pretty picture.
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