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The Painted Veil’ inspires emotions, senses

Michelle Fordice | Tuesday, January 23, 2007

“The Painted Veil” is one of the few films I’ve seen recently whose mood has managed to linger beyond the theater doors. The majestic and peaceful cinematography, scenery and score capture the senses and provide a striking overlay to the character’s humanity and the story’s themes of punishment, forgiveness and the difficulty of uniting two worlds, whether they are England and China or man and wife.

Set in 1925 and based on the book by W. Somerset Maugham, “The Painted Veil” tells the story of a young bacteriologist, Walter Fane (Edward Norton), and his wife Kitty (Naomi Watts). Kitty, a shallow socialite, marries Walter to escape her mother and the embarrassment of a late marriage, but she has no love for him. He takes her to Shanghai where she quickly becomes bored and has an affair with English Vice Council Charlie Townsend (Live Schreiber). Walter later discovers their indiscretion and takes his revenge by offering Kitty a difficult choice – she must either convince Townsend to divorce his own wife and marry her, or accompany Walter to the village of Mei-Tan-Fu, which is suffering from a cholera outbreak. They travel into rural China, where they find a set of people whose lives are also being pulled apart.

The film is founded on its tensions, whether they are political, sexual or moral. The film does not forget its setting and reveals many of the conflicts arising in early 20th century China as it convulses through British imperialism. As one of the characters notes, “…if the cholera doesn’t get us, the nationalists might.” From the outset it explores the dynamic between various political groups, including the British, Chinese nationalists, regional warlords and the local Chinese peasants.

Unlike many current films, “The Painted Veil” portrays sexuality as something honest in its timidity and roughness, rather than in confidence and practiced sensuality. Kitty’s encounters with Townsend may be pleasurable and those with Walter may be awkward, but ultimately meaning is found in the latter.

But the film’s main focus is on discovering to what extent people will punish themselves and others in the struggle to forgive. Walter and Kitty do not easily forgive and forget, and, in doing, so they make their journey that much harder.

The film’s characters are complex and flawed, making their growth all the more important, as their redemption is uncertain. Walter Fane may be self-sacrificing, risking his life to enter a cholera epidemic, but he can also be cruel, threatening to strangle his wife if she interrupts him in anger. Kitty Fane can be shallow and deeply honest. Together their refusal to forgive easily is very human.

Even the secondary characters maintain an impressive level of depth. Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones) at first appears to be the typical, disgruntled Englishman abroad, but his loyalty to his Manchurian mistress and “gone native” mentality are slowly revealed. Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) balances precariously between doubting Norton’s English doctor and aiding him. None of the characters are standard heroes, and each makes mistakes and finds acceptance.

The score and cinematography of “The Painted Veil” are some of the film’s most beautiful aspects. One of very few movies permitted to be filmed in China in recent years, the film takes full advantage of the country’s natural beauty. The Golden Globe winning score, composed by Alexandre Desplat and featuring pianist Lang Lang, pulses and flows through the film. It is majestic but not overpowering, reflecting the romantic nature of the story.

“The Painted Veil” is more than a period piece or a romance. It is a commentary on how people push themselves into deeper troubles, and how heroically and naturally they struggle to fix them.