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January 3-9, 2007

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'The Painted Veil'

Bamboozled: Naomi Watts and Edward Norton explore the East in John Curran's adaptation of 'The Painted Veil.'

China Syndrome

'The Painted Veil' is not your mom's Maugham—well, actually, it sort of is

By Richard von Busack

BASED ON a W. Somerset Maugham novel, The Painted Veil creaks like a water wheel. John Curran (indie director of We Don't Live Here Any More) has taken on an ambitious story of Europeans in rural China in the 1920s. It has a high level of picturesque and thought-provoking inflections by the leads Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. There was a point when Maugham rivaled R.L. Stevenson and Alexander Dumas as the most-filmed author. The downside is that dozens of old and weak films took their cues from his plots, and the result here is a movie in which you can see every shadow foreshadowed. Watts plays Kitty, a spoiled London girl. Her only viable beau is a government bacteriologist, Walter Fane (Norton), a shy, awkward stick and not an answer to a maiden's prayer. Fane's newest assignment is in Shanghai. Kitty takes his hand in a loveless marriage and ships out. In China, a roving married man entertains Kitty for a while, and Walter gets wind of the affair. To cure her of such dalliances, he hauls her to the back of beyond, to a remote Chinese village in mid-cholera epidemic. ("They're dropping like flies," he says invitingly.)

This version of The Painted Veil is told more implicitly from the woman's point of view, emphasizing the seriousness of the gamble in the days when one was forced to marry some nice but completely uninspiring man. I have never seen the 1934 Greta Garbo version—Andrew Sarris, for what it's worth, describes it as "becalmed in the realm of the ordinary"—but I doubt it would have been quite as feminist a story, or that it would argue that Kitty is a victim of her pinched, snobbish circumstance.

To its credit, The Painted Veil is not euphemistic about death by cholera, showing us how disgusting it would be. The movies of Garbo's day showed any disease as a form of creeping saintliness overcoming a character. In the Shanghai section, Liev Schreiber is a perfect tuxedoed cad, and I loved the rapidity of his approach; he sizes Kitty up in nanoseconds. Norton is right for the part of Walter, in the sense that he embodies uneasiness. He has a neurotic drawing-room face—one sees a memory of the sickbed in it. People who wondered why The Illusionist wasn't a bigger hit could look no further to its lead. This is no slur against Norton—look at all the things he can do that a traditional leading man can't. Maybe it's the tension of his acting that makes him rough to watch for the entirety of a film. He has no loose, casual side.

One more performance to mention: Diana Rigg as the mother superior who gradually awakens Kitty's altruism. The nun mirrors Kitty because she has mislaid her faith but still honors her difficult marriage vows to Jesus—just as Kitty should have honored her own difficult marriage vows, we are meant to guess. I liked Rigg's inflections in her epitaph for a dead colleague: "Her good and simple soul has flown to heaven," in tones that say, That's what we tell the peasants, anyway. It has happened to me, as it'll happen to you: seeing the best-looking actresses of my youth age to play wry old nuns with creases in their face. Wonder how Natalie Portman will look in a wimple?

Movie Times The Painted Veil (PG-13; 125 min.), directed by John Curran, written by Ron Nyswaner, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, photographed by Stuart Dryburgh and starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, opens Jan. 5.

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