Love and cholera take hold in 20s China in The Painted Veil. It's the stuff of classic melodrama, but if John Curran's direction is somewhat stuffy, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts breathe fresh air into this (ultimately uplifting) story by British novelist Somerset Maugham. Norton is especially good, finding humanity in a stern scientist who inflicts cruel and unusual punishment on his cheating wife, by hauling her to an isolated village ravaged by deadly disease.
Watts steps into the pin-heeled shoes of Greta Garbo, who first played the impish Kitty Fane in 1934. She's certainly a lot less glamorous than Garbo, but adds a modern 'Material Girl' grit to Kitty's snub-nosed boredom with London life. She marries uptight Walter (Norton) to escape her twittering parents and doesn't think twice about playing away in Shanghai with fellow ex-pat Charlie (Liev Schreiber). Her reckless streak does nothing to engender Kitty initially, but when Walter spitefully drops her in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, the mood changes.
"A RATHER TOO LEISURELY PACE"
Curran assumes a rather too leisurely pace in getting to that mountaintop village, cramming in the David Lean 'sweeping landscape' shots between flashbacks to Shanghai. It's actually the journey beyond this point that finally lifts the veil on the hidden passions of Kitty and Walter, and makes the film engaging. They sit through endless silent dinners, but the joy is in fleeting moments when chinks in the armour are revealed and intimacy gradually grows. Yes, it lags at times, but overall this is a satisfyingly slow-burning romance, beautifully scored and acted.
The Painted Veil is released in UK cinemas on Friday 27th April 2007.