Friday, December 29, 2006

The Painted Veil - Movie Review

The Painted Veil 2006

When W. Somerset Maugham’sThe Painted Veil” was first published in 1925, we thought it was lovely. But it was the jazz age and we were usually drunk off our asses, and barely remember the books we once read. We believe it was set in London and Hong Kong and dealt with a headstrong young lass by the name of Kitty who is trapped in a loveless marriage, fucks the nearest stud to flash his eyes at her, gets caught by her hubby and carted off to the jungle in the middle of a cholera epidemic to ruminate on their failed marriage.

The third film version, yes kids, the third follows a semi proud tradition. The original version appeared in 1934, directed by the famed Richard Boleslawski and starring Herbert Marshall and George Brent as the spouse and lover of the divine Greta Garbo. It was a success (we loved it, although we might have still been drunk since it was the Depression Era.) and featured a typically divine performance from Garbo. Years later another one of our favorite actresses, Eleanor Parker headlined a less than stellar remake retitled “The Seventh Sin” and co-starred Jean-Pierre Aumont, Bill Travers and that scene stealer George Sanders as the confidant, Waddington.

Now, forty nine years later, director John Curran has brought together two wonderfully talented leads, Naomi Watts and Edward Norton to recreate the famed roles in a very handsome and well wrought remake that completely enchanted us for the first hour, and then ran across some road bumps in the second half before it recovered in time to deliver the goods in the final reel. Adding tremendous support are Liev Schreiber and Toby Jones as humpy lover and trusting confidant figures to the bickering Fanes.

As Kitty Fane, Naomi Watts delivers one of the year’s best performances. We have been fans since her mind numbingly powerful break in David Lynch’s masterpiece “Mulholland Dr.”. Her subsequent Oscar nominated performance in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s21 Grams” and last years deliciously cinematic remake of “King Kong” justified our faith in her superior skills as an actress.

Two time Oscar nominee Edward Norton continues to impress as Dr. Walter Fane, the quietly humiliated husband who must endure playing the cuckold to his wife’s less than quiet affair in Shanghai. But with such a fine piece of ass as Liev Schreiber as the tempting beau, who could blame her?

Which is the most interesting aspect of the first half of this film. We see the timid courting from Walter Fane to the beautiful but headstrong Kitty who lives out a bored existence off her family’s fortune and good name. While she finds him mildly interesting, she quickly realizes that her family thinks very little of her future prospects and hopes she will not let this one pass her by. One could hardly call this piece a feminist manifesto, but it does do a fine job of portraying a certain type of society woman who had very little choices of her own available to her in the early part of the twentieth century.

Kitty agrees to marry Walter, mainly to escape her own prison of ennui. When she is spirited away to China, where Walter is hired to work as a bacteriologist, she enters a different kind of prison. While Walter is never less than civil and gentlemanly to her needs, their marriage is completely without passion. They walk through the required motions and keep a respectable distance from any real feelings. When Kitty is introduced to the charming and sexy Charlie Townsend, she succumbs far quicker than even she herself could suspect.

Their brief but fiery affair is quickly discovered by Walter at the worst possible time in his career. For a breakout of the cholera epidemic has occurred in a rural location deeper into China, and he agrees to go and work as their village doctor to examine the ravages of cholera up close. What happens next is the turning point for the film and the relationship between the Fanes. Walter confronts Kitty about her betrayal and gives her an impossible choice: she can accompany him deep into the cholera epidemic or he will file for divorce citing her relationship with Charles as adultery and thereby ruining both their reputations.

Kitty attempts to call his bluff, and secure a promise from Charlie that he will divorce his own wife and they can rebuild their reputations by marrying each other. We don’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say that Kitty is forced to pack her bags and accompany her now openly hostile husband into the deathtrap awaiting them.

Their life in rural China is one that quickly deteriorates into a series of soul baring confrontations exasperated by Kitty’s boredom at having to acquiesce to all of Walter’s needs and his own aggravation at the limited means available to him to care for the victims of cholera who are dropping like flies around him.

All of which made for a riveting look at two headstrong individuals that attempt to pick up the pieces of their lives in the middle of a hostile and decidedly foreign environment. We loved it! The first half.

The second half of the film struggles to find the correct tone and pacing once it begins to devolve into a broader canvas. For the filmmakers have opted to push up the timeframe of the original piece and place it during the height of the Chinese Nationalist uprising. We understand that their intent was to frame the domestic drama of the Fanes within the context of a historical epoch that immediately registered fear, mistrust and hatred of outsiders. We tend to think it was bit of overkill. The Fanes arduous journey into the outback of China, their withering experience amongst the locales perishing of cholera and their decided “otherness” being a proper British couple made it perfectly clear to us that they were indeed strangers in a strange land attempting to find each other.

The good news is that the film does recover nicely from that small blunder, through the crafty skills of the director John Curran, the sumptuous and detailed designs by costumer Ruth Myers and production designs by Tu Juhua and the extraordinarily gorgeous score by our favorite modern film composer, Alexandre Desplat. All of which provide the beautiful canvas for the truly wonderful performances by the two leads and their solid supporting cast.

Naomi Watts and Edward Norton find and deliver every nuance of the unhappy Fanes. From cautious courtship, to the polite exchanges of their blossoming marriage to the pain and emotional evisceration brought on by Kitty’s infidelity through the heartfelt ending.

Toby Jones as the outwardly trusting and inwardly decadent Waddington delivers another finely etched performance after his terrific lead turn as Truman Capote in the delightful bauble “Infamous”. Here, he reeks of the fallen gentleman who maintains his secure hold on the local peasantry by the sheer force of his charm and intelligence. A sort of bastard love child to Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, if those two famed scene stealers could have procreated.

And finally although certainly not lastly, Dame Diana Rigg appears as the Mother Superior to the Belgian convent that is responsible for the care and Christianization of the Chinese orphans of the plague. As usual, her star power, charisma and legendary acting talent work wonders on the least interesting role. Still, the old Dame is not without her guile as she manages to maintain a steady hold on her position in this crumbling society. Witness her exquisitely delivered speech to Kitty as she attempts to help her find her path as she reveals some surprising secrets about her own life. Perfect as usual, Dame Diana. (The picture above is not too recent, in case you were wondering. Assholes.)

So, while the second half of the movie may attempt too much and lose its storytelling drive we still found many aspects to “The Painted Veil” to be very entertaining. The solid first half, the handsome design and the fine acting throughout. It definitely helped to leave us feeling cinematically satisfied that the film ends on a boffo emotional note and for once, a coda that doesn’t seem forced or unnecessary. Film lovers of epic drama should run out and see it, for it is one of the few period films in recent years to excel at the human drama. We just wish they had kept the focus tightly on the fascinating Fanes. Bless you all!

Directed by John Curran
Screenplay by Ron Nyswaner
Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham

Naomi Watts as Kitty Fane
Edward Norton as Walter Fane
Liev Schreiber as Charlie Townsend
Toby Jones as Waddington
Diana Rigg as Mother Superior
Lorraine Laurence as Sister Maryse
Gesang Meiduo as Amah
Juliet Howland as Dorothy Townsend
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang as Colonel Yu

Original Music by Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh
Film Editing by Alexandre de Franceschi
Costume Design by Ruth Myers
Production Design by Tu Juhua
Art Direction by Peta Lawson



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