Based on W Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel, 'The Painted Veil' is an old-fashioned melodramatic epic with a solid script, engaging performances and spectacular cinematography. Set in colonial China amidst rebellion and cholera, Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play an estranged couple who discover love in an unexpected place.
Empty-headed and shallow, Jazz Age party girl Kitty (Watts) agrees to marry the serious, intense Dr Walter Fane (Norton) after just one meeting for fear of being left on the shelf. The couple marry quickly and travel to Shanghai, where Walter works in a government lab studying infectious diseases. Bored with her husband and life in colonial Shanghai, Kitty soon falls into an affair with married British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Schreiber). When Walter discovers, he volunteers to work at a cholera epidemic in the Chinese interior - and insists that his wife accompany him, or be served with divorce papers.
A sulky, miserable Kitty, alienated from her husband and abandoned by her self-centred lover, is thrown on her own limited resources. With the help of a wise Mother Superior (Rigg) at the local orphanage - how very 1920s! - she comes to see her husband and her life in a very different manner.
Anyone who loves period drama will enjoy 'The Painted Veil'. Not only does it have impeccable literary antecedents and two good-looking, well-dressed stars, the cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh and the Chinese setting are absolutely breathtaking. This is the first American-funded film in many years to shoot in China and the gamble by the filmmakers - try arguing permissions, clearances and politics with the Chinese Film Board - pays off handsomely.
In his second period outing this year - the first was 'The Illusionist' - Norton acquits himself well but Naomi Watts' portrayal of a superficial adulteress redeemed is outstanding. The vindictive scenes of cold war between the two, particularly one face-off over a bowl of possibly cholera-infected vegetables, are especially venomous. The ever-watchable Toby Jones also pops up, as is his wont (see 'Amazing Grace', 'Mrs Henderson Presents', 'Finding Neverland', 'Ladies in Lavender'), playing Waddington, a debauched civil servant gone native.
Although a modern audience may find it difficult to understand the nuances and social pressures of the day, the rich atmospheric textures of 'The Painted Veil' are absorbing enough to sweep you away. A thoughtful and quietly powerful love story.