Walter Fane (Edward Norton, American History X) is a shy, dedicated middle-class doctor who falls in love with Kitty (Naomi Watts, I Heart Huckabees), a pampered upper-class lady. Marrying him just to get away from her parents, Kitty moves to Shanghai with Walter, where the pair’s marriage devolves into an empty shell. Finding what she believes is love in the arms of another man (Liev Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate), Kitty has an illicit affair behind Walter’s back. When he finds out, however, Walter extracts his passion-driven revenge—by taking her with him to a rural village inflicted by cholera.
It’s nice to see a more honest look at romance for a change; one that isn’t filtered through rose-tinted glasses like most romantic comedies. Make no mistake, while it does have a few light-hearted moments, The Painted Veil looks at love in a much more realistic point of view. The screenplay by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), based on the famous novel by W. Somerset Maugham, does drag in parts, which is the film’s only outstanding flaw. The generally well-written, and sometimes even witty dialogue makes up for this most of the time, though. It also helps, of course, that director John Curran’s (We Don’t Live Here Anymore) visual style, with the aid of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano) are simply breathtaking.
On top of that, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with a cast like this. Norton, as usual, is a joy to watch. He plays Walter with such a sensitive charm that, despite all his superficial character flaws, you can’t help but sympathize with him. Watts more than holds her own against Norton—no easy feat considering what a reputation the man has garnered for himself. There is a right mix of chemistry and animosity between the pair, making any scene that they share together great to watch.
If you’re in the mood for something light, you might want to give The Painted Veil a miss. But if you’re looking for a well-acted, visually stunning drama that’s timeless and harshly realistic in its views of love (think of this as a slightly inferior The English Patient), then this one’s for you.