It's always fantastic when a film meets or exceeds expectations. The Painted Veil, the romantic yarn from director John Curran, achieves such composure in these eyes. Though, frankly, it wasn't what was expected. Adapted from the W. Somerset Maugham novel, this '20s era dramatic love story embraces a sumptuous beauty amidst lovely, understated achievements from both Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. This is quite the display of visual, aural, and theatrical confection.
Set primarily in China during the 1920s, The Painted Veil takes us on a journey through the lost emotional whimsy of Kitty (Naomi Watts), a London metropolitan. She wishes nothing more to escape the clutches of her demeaning family and to enjoy the simple aesthetic pleasures of another life. In steps Walter (Edward Norton), an austere bacteriologist with a shy yet determined disposition and a wholly obsessed drive for his work. His government position keeps him bolted in Shanghai, a locale many moons away from London that proves to be enticing for the not-so-enamored Kitty. Walter proposes to Kitty, which ensues in a marriage instigated by all the wrong reasons that explodes in a smattering of ill will shortly thereafter.
Amidst the fireworks of a sputtering marriage, Walter jumps on an opportunity to help amidst a horrible cholera epidemic in a remote Chinese town. Dragged within the clutches of a now stringent Walter, Kitty delves into the epidemic as well. It's a tumultuous journey for a condemned couple into a condemned area that seems to have no shining light in sight. However, their path is also a glorious tribulation of growth and understanding, both for Kitty's void recoil and Walter's headstrong brashness.
It's hard to get over the aesthetic splendor atop The Painted Veil's melancholy romantic nature. Foremost, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's visual achievement is flat-out mesmerizing. There's such a simple, wispy vigor within the shots, not so much enchanting for the scenery but for the way even simple scenes are achieved. It doesn't hurt, though, that the epidemic happens to take place in a lush, glistening gem of a locale in the outskirts of China. Furthermore, the incredible Golden Globe winning score from Alexandre Desplat swirls and swims with the lavish scenery, giving this film the aural richness needed to parlay with the majestic visuals.
Not even considering the physical prowess, The Painted Veil is a sublime, rapturously beautiful piece of filmmaking. It resonates with a timeless narrative reminiscent of classic Hollywood romance. Pure, sweet magic shimmers within each scene as if meticulously etched into raw jade with a pick and hammer. There's not a plethora of high-impact scenes or stringently potent aggression amidst this bittersweet tale of subdued punishment. When they do arise, they arrive with gallant strength. Curran's newest piece takes a gracefully gentle pace with understated, nuanced performances atypical of the two leads.
Make no mistake that The Painted Veil is, in fact, a Naomi Watts vehicle. Kitty's tale of complex, muddled emotion takes the rings as the central conflict of the film. At the start, she's an empty shell, focused on surface eccentricities and an undemanding escape from her life. Watts nails down this persona quite admirably, displaying ample timidity and hollowness. Much like a mass of clay ready for molding, Kitty starts unshapely and gradually melds into another form through careful, subtle pressures. It's a part that requires deterring vacancy, and Watts handles her with supple poise.
As ample as Kitty's portrayal is, she wouldn't hold the same assets without an equally precise Walter. He could easy hold monstrous properties, but it's only through Edward Norton's sensibly crafted performance that his realism and integrity shine. Instead of brazen aggression like his outings in Fight Club and American History X, Norton adheres to careful, quiet electricity for Walter. He parries wonderfully with Watts' equally delicate performance, assembling a finicky dance between the two that lends an enthralling air to their duel. The lack of aggression from both Kitty and Walter perfectly suits the scenario, their characters, and the period in which this all occurs.
All this wistful splendor unfolds with delicate, sweeping glory. Hold no doubt that this is a tale about the writhing, duly correctable mistakes of misguided lovers. Many a theatric within The Painted Veil leans on the saccharine side of echoing romanticism. That's what makes this film's narrative so pleasant, however. Sure, there's a remotely foreseeable bow to be tied atop a pretty package. Watching these two unfurl amidst this horrible epidemic, however, keeps the story on a radiant level. The Painted Veil maintains a credible, silky keel that's wholly pleasant to run your fingers through from start to finish.
Warner Independent presents The Painted Veil in a standard single-disc keepcase with attractive coverart and discart reminiscent of the menu above.
As if the point slipped through the review, The Painted Veil is a stunningly beautiful film. Visually, that beauty pouring through this anamorphic widescree transfer is brilliantly saturated and clean, but has a few issues. Edge enhancement rears its ugly head a bit more than it should, especially with distanced shots on individuals. Also, there's a fair amount of grain that causes a few faces to get a shade blocky. Digital noise and such can be seen here and there as well. However, even amidst these problems, the visual grandiose of this film can still be clearly seen. Most prominent, even over any of these issues, is the incredible color palette. Rich with a myriad of olive and emerald hues, this really is a feast for the eyes. Minor details in architecture, bricks, and other textures were fine as well. There's a lot of beauty to be seen in this transfer - it's just underneath a few blemishes.
Such a quaint, nuanced film also carries a soft aural presentation. Within The Painted Veil's Dolby 5.1 track, lots of richness and enveloping strength can be heard. Dialogue wasn't distorted and came out quite crisp. Of course, the lower frequency channel isn't utilized much in such a quiet film. However, the phenomenal score sounded fantastic. Each chord and chime enveloped the dazzling visuals wonderfully. Though there was some remote usage of the surround channels, this track mainly felt like a lightly extended Stereo track. Most of the activity stayed to the front channels with very gradual sound trickling to the rear. The Painted Veil, in essence, sounded wonderful amidst it's inherent limitations. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
Here's a major downer - nothing. There's a Scene Selection and a Theatrical Trailer, and that's all we're working with here. Hopefully, this is a release that Warner Independent will delve into further in the future, because some discussion on book translation, cinematography, and score composition would be quite welcome and of interest.
The Painted Veil is a wonderful, gorgeous film. It's an enjoyable romantic drama with incredible shots and an equally impressive aural accompaniment. Norton and Watts achieve something unexpectedly great amidst two very nuanced performances. The result is a glorious piece of cinema undoubtedly worth seeing. The Painted Veil itself comes Highly Recommended, however, this disc suffers a little bit in the visual department and a lot in supplemental materials. Therefore, by all means, this is a disc that comes Recommended as a respectable placeholder for a more thorough edition. If another doesn't surface, this one will still fit the bill as a decent representation of the film's quality.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site