Based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil, opening today at the Albany Twin, tells a mannered and melodramatic tale. The actors are great—Edward Norton and Naomi Watts deliver fine performances as a couple navigating the difficult terrain of both their young marriage and of cholera-ravaged rural China—but it’s just not enough to carry the weight of a burdensome drama.
Watts plays a spoiled and rather petulant young woman who finds herself married, almost against her will, to Norton’s considerate if dull and overly studious young scientist. When her infidelity threatens their fragile marriage he vengefully drags her—over the longest and most arduous route possible—to China, where he is to contribute his knowledge and skill to lessening the impact of a cholera epidemic.
What follows is an intriguing micro/macro staging of themes as the two resist, resent and finally come to respect each other, the drama unfolding against a backdrop of British colonialism in which the two cultures find themselves in precisely the same predicament.
It is a story with great promise and great intentions, but it just doesn’t come off. Aside from the tediously Eurocentric perspective, the trouble is that the enormity of the epidemic, as well as the increasingly relevant themes of Western imperialism and occupation, render the domestic portion of the drama trite and uninteresting. In the context of a never-ending “war on terror” and a disastrous occupation of Iraq, the problems of two little people just don’t amount to a hill of beans, to paraphrase another, more successful geopolitical melodrama. In fact, Casablanca is an instructive example in this case. Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film solved this dilemma by making its characters larger than life and with emotions to match. The Painted Veil by contrast keeps its characters small and thus they are overwhelmed by the international political drama that is intended as their backdrop.
The Maugham novel was written in 1925 as part of the then-popular Westerners Adrift In The Orient genre. Though director John Curran and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner made changes to the story, leavening some of its bleakness with greater understanding between characters and cultures, they curiously retained much of the novel’s chauvinism. While the action concerns cultures getting to know and appreciate one another, the construction of the film itself still sees the Chinese merely as picturesque background material, and indeed much of the understanding the cultures need to come to involves the silly natives simply learning to appreciate the intelligence and integrity of their white savior. Likewise, the domestic plot covers the same ground, with Watt’s selfish young hussy eventually being made to comprehend and bow down to the Great Man that is her husband. Sure, both the husband and Westerners in general are presented as flawed and fallible, but in the end the message is clear: Daddy knows best.
The film hits a few other snags along the way. Too much of Curran’s direction seems borrowed from the Merchant-Ivory playbook of costume drama adaptation, a school of filmmaking capable of reaching great artistic heights but which in lesser hands revels in overwrought staging, with a tendency to lean too heavily on clothing and set design to establish tone.
But the most damning flaw comes in the clichéd final scene, when Watts runs into a former lover on the street. The whole scene is ludicrous, seeking to wrap up the film with one of those ubiquitous bookend sequences that place the protagonist right back where she began. The full-circle conclusion is a valid device of course, but it is frequently abused in so many simplistic mainstream productions, and here it is handled clumsily. The gratuitous encounter only undermines the film’s aspirations toward artistry, confirming the triteness of its design. And to top it off, once she finishes the conversation, Watts turns to walk away while the camera pulls back to over-emphasize the symbolism as she steps across the streetcar tracks, leaving behind a former life and a former self and crossing over to a higher plane.
After two hours of tedium, we’re hard-pressed to care.
THE PAINTED VEIL
Directed by John Curran. Written by Ron Nyswaner. Based on the novel by Somerset Maugham. Starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber. Rated PG-13. 125 minutes. Playing at the Albany Twin.
Photograph: Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play a young couple navigating the difficult terrain of a troubled marriage against a backdrop of cholera-ravaged China.