Set in 1920s China, The Painted Veil follows a self-important British couple across the Chinese countryside to a far outpost where a village is being decimated by an outbreak of cholera. Walter Fane (Edward Norton, Fight Club) is a bacteriologist for the British government, and this is his chance to get some field experience. It's also an opportunity to get a little revenge on his bored, indiscrete wife, Kitty (Naomi Watts, still recovering from King Kong). Walter has recently discovered that Kitty has been sleeping with Charlie Townshend (Liev Schreiber, The Omen), a smarmy official that Walter knows is a cad. As the pair travel across country, carried on the backs of dutiful Chinese men, Kitty has time to reminisce about all the good times that have brought them there: the marriage she took out of convenience, the frustrating nights where the spouses stared into the intellectual gap between them, and the carnal abandon with which Charlie ravished her. You can almost forgive Walter for being so bent out of shape.
Naturally, once they are away from the society they know, Walter and Kitty are going to discover a brand-new perspective on life that is going to reinvigorate their passion for one another. No longer will Walter be a do-nothing in a lab somewhere, and Kitty is going to rediscover the piano, the object of her frivolous past life that marriage took away from her. Their guide into this newfound territory won't be the curious natives they are there to help, but a fellow Brit, Waddington (Toby Jones, Infamous), a free-spirited libertine who said goodbye to his homeland long ago. His loose-leafed take on life combined with the fruits of real labor and the character lessons born of personal tragedy ensure that the Fanes will become everything they once dreamed of being.
The Painted Veil is based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, and it was made into a film once before, in 1934, and starred Greta Garbo in the Naomi Watts role. As the emotionally frustrated Kitty, Watts isn't terrible, she's just a little too empty an empty vessel. She plays Kitty as consistently lost, when maybe she should have hung onto some of the energy she showed when the character was a young girl openly embracing her aimlessness. Kitty should enjoy her wanton ways a little more, that way it will make sense when she so desperately tries to hang onto Charlie and be all the more crushing when he casts her aside. Then again, if Watts were to amp up her performance, then Norton's narcoleptic presence would look all the more sleepy by comparison. What happened to Edward Norton, the dynamic actor that so surprised us ten years ago? While he does his best Ralph Fiennes impression in The Painted Veil, it's woefully obvious he's not Ralph Fiennes. Norton delivers his lines at a level slightly above mumbling, as if he's embarrassed by his fake English accent, and like he did in The Illusionist, he spends most of the movie with his eyes cast to the floor. In addition to the proctologist, The Painted Veil could have used with some product placement from Red Bull. A few cans and maybe Edward Norton would have woken up for a few of his scenes.
I have to say, I'm surprised that The Painted Veil failed to impress. It's directed by John Curran, whose previous film We Don't Live Here Anymore more than adequately proved he's quite adept at adapting literary works to the screen. It just feels like everyone is so overly concerned that they maintain the seriousness of Maugham's prose, they missed how ripe with melodrama the story is. Schreiber, Jones, Diana Rigg, and Hong Kong-regular Anthony Wong (Infernal Affairs) are all good in their supporting roles, but they all have several moments where they look at Watts or Norton with an expression of "Are you really going to play it that way?" After a while, I started to wonder how many of those were actually in the script and how many were on-set breaks from character that made it into the final cut.
The only performance in the movie that is 100% successful comes from China itself. The landscape is breathtaking. The green mountains and wide, open rivers would make a perfect backdrop for an emotional story like this one. How could anyone not be passionate amongst such gorgeous forests? The art department saw what they had to play against and stepped up their game, so that if they were going to look like they were playing dress-up, at least they'd look good doing it.
Which is really what is wrong with The Painted Veil, through and through: it never busts through the fašade to get to the real interior. The reason an acting turn by, say, Anthony Hopkins in a Merchant Ivory film is so effective is that he knows that even though his repressed Englishman has that stick up his butt, he eventually has to slide it out and show the inner turmoil it's been holding in place. Curran and co. think it's all the stick, and so they can never settle into the movie. The painted veil is the pretty disguise they wear, but someone should have told them to pull the covering aside and show us what's underneath.