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May 12, 2008 | by  | in Film |
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Film Review: Painted Veil

The Painted Veil is a luscious period piece set in China during the roaring 1920s. Based on the Somerset Maugham book of the same name, it follows young doctor Walter Fane (Ed Norton) and his new wife Kitty (Naomi Watts). While Walter is smitten with the beautiful socialite Kitty, she sees the marriage as a way out of her stuffy London life and a move that will put her beyond her overbearing mother’s control. Taking a backseat is the political setting of a China waking up to the realities of Western domination. The couple travel to Shanghai and settle in amongst the local expat crowd. Sure enough, Kitty is soon seduced by the caddish English consul (Watts’ real life partner Liev Schreiber). In a quietly seething rage, Walter presents her with an ultimatum: divorce for adultery or accompany him to the wild Chinese interior where he will be the last doctor standing between a rural town and a vicious cholera epidemic.

Social disgrace forces her to take the latter option.

Norton is brilliant as Walter. First touchingly innocent as the demure Englishman in oversized pyjamas on his wedding night, he becomes angrily aloof, refusing even to look at Kitty, and then finally he matures into the man who can cautiously yet passionately begins to love his wife again. Watts is also excellent as the listless wife whose inner stuff comes to the fore in the frontier town.

Watts and Norton produced the movie, and Norton is reputed to have hand-picked Watts to play his wife. It shows; Walter comes to life around Kitty and subsides when she leaves. The film is one complete work of art from the haunting opening sequence where the camera hangs in amongst the mossy Chinese cliffs, to the cold, understated London ending. Curiously, it was released over a year ago in the US, and snubbed at the Oscars. No matter: it’s here now and it deserves to be seen.

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