A sort of Reds with cholera in the Far East swapped for the Russian Revolution and a whole lot more bitterness and resentment between its central couple, The Painted Veil is more or less from the school of motion picture that Pauline Kael used to say “reeks of quality.” Though on a somewhat smaller scale, John Curran’s melodrama takes W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel and makes it a fairly old-fashioned Hollywood-style whites-in-peril tale, complete with longing shots of locals with brown faces staring wistfully into the camera. The problem with this is that Curran, a terrific director of small-scale dramas (Praise, We Don’t Live Here Anymore), clearly wants to make this an intimate story but the screenplay by Ron Nyswaner is all Hollywood, all conveniently arrived at conclusions and not terribly ambiguous delineations of character.
Set in 1920s Shanghai, the über-menschy Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) lashes out at his adulterous, petulant wife Kitty (Naomi Watts) by taking her to a remote Chinese village where cholera has been quickly wiping out the local population. (And especially with Philadelphia screenwriter Nyswaner aboard, the AIDS parallels are most certainly noted.) There’s a fellow Brit (Infamous star Toby Jones) who keeps house with an Asian concubine of sorts (though why he is there is never really made quite clear) they befriend, and Kitty even gets her own pet dog, err, guard, who follows her around as she explores the dangerous countryside.
There are a handful of potent scenes scattered throughout the film, mostly ones that delve into Kitty’s hauteur and vague set of values. Norton never really convinces as a Brit here, but Watts is excellent, in probably her boldest performance since 2001’s Mulholland Drive. Her best roles seem to be women with a bent of self-possession, and wisely avoiding some of the easy dramatics of her recent work, Watts makes Kitty both pitiful and pitiable. She is especially electric in her early scenes with Norton, making Kitty’s utter contempt for him completely palpable. (Her horrified reaction to his asking her to accompany him on this suicide mission is modulated with pitch-perfect bitchiness.) There’s a refreshing lack of vanity in her performance, which is unfortunate when the movie decides to soften her up. It’s this woman’s rough edges that give this pictoral postcard of a film some real life.