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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Love in the time of cholera: a review of The Painted Veil


Once upon a time, Walter, a good man of purpose, fell madly in love with a completely self-absorbed woman, Kitty, who barely even noticed him. The good man proposed and the woman, who didn't love him, married him because she had few good husband-shopping-days left and her parents wanted her out of the house - and he was a doctor, too.

So the good guy took her to live in Shanghai, while he went to work. Since she was bored she took up with the husband of the local expat-society queen, and managed to convince herself she was in love with the lover and that he was in love with her. Kitty therefore managed to go from self-absorbed to silly, just by traveling across the world.

Walter, hurt to his core, drags himself and Kitty out to the countryside to confront a cholera epidemic.

That's the start of The Painted Veil.

The Painted Veil is a beautiful movie, where the spectacular landscape becomes as much of a star as any of the actors. Any of you who saw Indochine would remember the great outdoor locations, and The Painted Veil compares favorably. The wardrobe and production values are exactly what one used to get from Merchant and Ivory. The music is beautiful.

The movie has all that and Diana Rigg playing a nun, too. She's grand.

I also loved Toby Jones, a Truman Capote look-alike, as Waddington, the last Western man going native in the cholera afflicted area.

Edward Norton is completely convincing as Walter, the doctor in love with the morally-impaired wife, in spite of Norton's poor impersonation of a British accent. As he did in The Illusionist, he can convincingly play a guy who's eating his heart out, and you love him for it.

The appeal of a man like Walter goes entirely lost on Kitty, who at one point remarks, "What woman ever fell in love with a man's virtue?" Certainly not a woman like Kitty. Waddington was much luckier.

Norton's character is exactly the kind of guy I'd marry, so I was very much put off by Kitty, who is a completely useless woman until boredom moves her to see what's happening outside her house-in-the-hills. Even then she needs a little help.

Back in the olden days Bette Davis would have made Kitty despicable. Unfortunately Naomi Watts is not Bette Davis, but at least Kitty does finally come around with a little help of Diana Rigg, Waddington, a night of partying, and all-out passion from the usually reserved Walter.

I must clarify that I have not read the original Somerset Maugham story, so I do not know if the movie is loyal to it.

So the problem is, with such a good movie, is the fact that the main character is so unappealing the reason why the movie hasn't been more successful? Or is it because, underneath all the good stuff, we're looking at a chick flick?

Regardless, it is a good film, and Edward Norton fans will love him in it, bad accent and all.

Rated PG-13 for nudity, gross scenes, and drug use,


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At 6:57 AM, Blogger john said...

fortunately, watts is not bette davis. she's not only more beautiful, but at least as good in many ways, as critics like stephen whitty of the newark star-ledger has recently pointed out & a critic from the straits times (in that neck of the world).


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