Movie review: 'The Painted Veil'

MoviesEntertainmentEnglandChinaEdward NortonNaomi WattsLiev Schreiber

3 stars (out of four)

Naomi Watts is hardly a glamor icon in the vein of Greta Garbo. But Garbo really had no business being in a film version of Somerset Maugham's "The Painted Veil." And Watts does.

Maugham's 1925 novel about Brits and cholera and marital forgiveness in China was first filmed in 1934, with Garbo (gowns by Adrian) as Maugham's callow flibbertigibbet. The character's ethnicity may have been changed from English to Austrian, but the story remained English to the core. At one point in the '34 edition George Brent, playing a British Embassy wolf in twit's clothing, squires Garbo through a Chinese curio shop, his eyes dancing with lust. "You're the most curious curio in all of China," he informs her. If only Groucho had been around to say that.

The Garbo version was followed by "The Seventh Veil" (1957), a '50s-glossy remake starring Eleanor Parker. Now we have the new film starring Watts and Edward Norton. It, too, has its glossy travelogue aspects. Some of the story revisions venture into romance-novel territory. But they're not ridiculous, and I enjoyed the results. The acting is quite splendid, especially in the vicinity of the quite splendid Watts.

She plays Kitty, a shallow specimen of the Mayfair set who marries a taciturn bacteriologist, Walter (Norton), because she's bored and it's getting late. (Maugham writes that she consents "in a panic.") Work takes Walter and Kitty to Hong Kong, where Kitty finds relief from a disappointing marriage in the form of a dashing British Embassy bureaucrat (Liev Schreiber).

Walter avenges this with a double suicide mission. He volunteers to relocate to inland China where a cholera epidemic is raging, and he blackmails Kitty into joining him. Life is pretty horrible for a time. Then, with the cagey companionship of the only other Brit in the area (an outpost official played, with zest and wit, by Toby Jones), Kitty starts discovering herself as well as the true worth of her noble husband. Diana Rigg is on hand to play a French nun baptizing Chinese souls for God.

The adaptation by Ron Nyswaner frees up the characters considerably. An awful lot of screen time is devoted to Walter's conception and execution of an irrigation system designed to relieve the rural peasants of infected well water (screenwriter Nyswaner added most of this). Also the doctor now trots around on horseback, Kildare-in-China style. Director John Curran can do only so much to energize the later scenes pitting hapless Brits against angry anti-colonialist Chinese revolutionaries. (One senses the filmmakers straining a bit to evoke modern-day matters of American and British forces in Iraq.)

Still, the director's very good with actors and acting. Norton and Watts served as producers as well as stars, and unlike so many other star-produced projects this one doesn't have the grim aura of a vanity project. Watts gets better and better with each good role she lands. In everything from "Mulholland Dr." to "King Kong" to this project, she goes further in unexpected directions than most actresses would. She's born to play a brittle Maugham antiheroine, and she doesn't back away from Kitty's self-centeredness.

The film's state-department-tour tendencies are mitigated by two factors. One, we haven't seen these precise locations in a million other films. The Chinese locations ache with beauty. And two: When Watts and Norton focus, intently, on Maugham's often dazzlingly vindictive characters, "The Painted Veil" really does feel like a story worth filming a third time.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'The Painted Veil'

Directed by John Curran; screenplay by Ron Nyswaner, based on Somerset Maugham's novel; cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh; edited by Alexandre de Franceschi; production design by Tu Juhua; music by Alexandre Desplat; produced by Sara Colleton, Jean-Francois Fonlupt, Bob Yari, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. A Warner Independent Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:05. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content).

Kitty Fane - Naomi Watts

Walter Fane - Edward Norton

Charlie Townsend - Liev Schreiber

Waddington - Toby Jones

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