Starring: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Toby Jones, Liev
Schreiber, Dianna Rigg. Rated PG-13.
There is passive aggression, then there’s the smoldering
rage that lurks just beneath the grim self-control of Edward Norton’s
performance in The Painted Veil. As
Walter Fane, a doctor betrayed by his wife’s infidelity, Norton quietly
seethes, his eyes burning with the resolve of a man determined to exact his
pound of flesh. It is a slyly understated turn, and Norton makes it speak
volumes. Fane may seem mild-mannered, but with one fleeting glare, he suggests the
cold intensity of a killer.
It is a cleverly misleading performance, essential to the
tension that shrouds The Painted Veil in
the early going. In truth, Walter is no monster, though he can be stubborn and
cruel, and his resentment is not entirely justified – he is, after all,
consumed by his practice and willfully aloof from his wife. When he first meets
Kitty (Naomi Watts), he hastily arranges a marriage that is convenient for both
of them. She is a selfish, directionless socialite born into a wealthy British
family that is happy to see her go. He is planning a move to China, and wants a
trophy wife for the ride.
It’s an awful match, but Walter, socially obtuse even in
the best of times, is too preoccupied by his research to notice. Kitty is
miserable, beside herself with boredom, and her affair with a slick British
consul (Liev Schreiber) is the one thing that makes her feel alive. When Walter
exposes her betrayal, his punishment is swift. He whisks Kitty off to the
Chinese countryside, the heart of a deadly cholera outbreak. Does he care
whether Kitty is exposed? Maybe, maybe not.
But something unexpected happens as Walter, distant as ever,
struggles to slow the spread of the disease: Kitty warms to him. She begins to
see the good in her husband, the bravery and concern that he reserves for his
patients. She determines to win him back, and the thawing process begins. That
it comes as such a surprise and seems not the least contrived is a testament to
Ron Nyswaner’s script, adapted from a 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham.
Maugham’s Veil has inspired three movies
– something of a surprise, considering the dry, joyless nature of his prose –
but this is the first that treats both its leads with real affection.
Walter and Kitty are
presented as stubborn and undeniably
flawed, but theirs is a romance made all the more convincing by its
complications. It draws power and authenticity from the depths of dysfunction,
and when they finally arrive at a mutual understanding that feels like love,
the payoff is a pleasant relief. These are wonderfully complex characters,
fleshed out with a warmth that Maugham probably never intended by Norton and
Watts, commanding actors who play off each other like dueling virtuosos. In the
end, they deserve nothing less than each other.