Three time's the charm for Somerset Maugham's tale of marital strife and suicidal reconciliation. After a lackluster adaptation of the novel did Greta Garbo no favors in 1934 and an equally plodding version retitled The Seventh Sin (i.e. adultery) failed in 1957, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts pick up the baton and mount a prestige production drenched in lush Chinese landscapes and impeccable casting. Directed with moving intimacy by John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore), The Painted Veil is a bit too long and bit too schematic for its own good, but never fails to impress.
Walter Fane (Norton) is an earnest but bland bacteriologist who marries beautiful but flighty Kitty (Watts) an upper crust Londoner whose affairs embarrass her family. Taking off to Shanghai with her new husband, Kitty discovers the two have little in common and boredom quickly sets in. Predictably, she begins a torrid affair with Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) a smooth but caddish diplomat. When Walter discovers he's been cuckolded, his buttoned-up rage leads him to exile them both to a remote inland community where a cholera epidemic has broken out.
There behind mist-shrouded mountains and luxuriant meadows, Walter struggles against local tradition and a deep hostility to foreigners to stem the horrible death toll. Meanwhile, Kitty slowly wakens from her selfish sleepwalk through life to discover a sense of mission and self-worth. Working with orphans at the convent, bonding with a cheeky diplomat (the wonderful Toby Jones) and learning to appreciate Walter's quiet decency, the mammoth iceberg of resentment and rage melts between the spouses. It's a love story in reverse, where an angry husband and loveless wife learn to appreciate each other in a landscape littered with death and disease.
It's probably pretty clear that Maugham's drama is very much a product of its time, reveling in the rigid repression and stuffy codes of behavior that permeated post-Victorian English society. It's to Curran and his cast's credit that they clear away much fussiness to reveal instances of real passion and humanity. The moments that resonate are patiently earned and sincerely moving. Still, there's no getting around the fact Ron Nyswaner's (Philadelphia) literate script is filled with nostalgic Hollywood clichés and predictably convenient plot points.
Norton and Watts are, as you might expect, very good, bringing intelligence and conviction to their roles. Watts, in particular, makes Kitty's feisty self-possession alternately attractive and repellant. It's a rare actress that can earn our sympathy and scorn is equal doses. The supporting cast is all first-rate, with Diana Rigg making an unexpectedly wrinkly appearance as a mother superior and Anthony Wong (Infernal Affairs, Hard Boiled) adding silent dignity to his calculating nationalist commander.
Elegant, tasteful and picture-postcard perfect, The Painted Veil recalls the work of several Merchant and Ivory productions with its whites-in-foreign turmoil plot contrivances. It's a well-intentioned melodrama that nevertheless manages to connect with convincing moments of forgiveness, sacrifice, and civility; values that could use a little more airtime in today's cinema.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.