The Painted Veil

W. Somerset Maugham is an author who I’ll admit I’ve never heard of. I don’t do much reading, particularly from older works of literature, and therefore have never read any of his novels. He wrote “The Painted Veil” in 1925, setting it during the time period in which it was written.

The Painted Veil has been adapted to film three times. The first was in 1934, and was titled “The Painted Veil” as well. This version didn’t follow the novel all that closely, not even getting to the end of the novel’s plot; it ended part-way through the story that the novel had. In 1957, the book was adapted again, this time with the film titled “The Seventh Sin“. It starred Bill Travers and Eleanor Parker in the lead roles.

The third adaptation is the one I ended up watching, once again titled “The Painted Veil“. This time, it stars Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in the title roles, and focuses on the relationship between the two. This is also different from the book, so I’m told anyway, as the character that Norton plays actually doesn’t appear all that often in the novel. At least, he doesn’t show up much after the pair go to China.

It’s in China where the majority of the film takes place. Walter Fane (Norton) is a bacteriologist who needs to go to China to treat victims of a Cholera outbreak that has begun. He makes his wife, Kitty (Watts), come with him on the threat of divorce. See, earlier on, Kitty had an affair with another man, Charles Townspenny (Liev Schreiber), and this angered Walter. Divorce is apparently something that Kitty doesn’t want, at least, not a public divorce, so she agrees to accompany her husband to China.

While in China, things start to go to wrong. Not just for the couple, but also for everything else in the backdrop. Cholera, as the film depicts, is something that you don’t want to get. It’s a painful infliction that will kill you due to dehydration after 36 hours, or so Dr. Fane tells us. At this point, I called out “ONE OF YOU WILL DIE BY THE END OF THIS MOVIE”, or at least I would have had I not been so enthralled by the experience I was having.

Even though I felt the plot was predictable, or at least, I did at that point, I was immersed enough by the story to not want to say anything bad about it. This feeling stayed with me throughout the film, and also after I had finished watching it. A feeling I didn’t realize I was feeling while watching it was one of connection to the characters, something that seems really strange to me.

See, usually when I’m watching a movie, I am able to discern whether or not I’m connecting with the characters. There are usually clear-cut reasons, one way or another, why this is. In The Painted Veil, I didn’t realize how much emotion I felt for the characters until after it concluded. It hit me like a wave from the ocean following the end of the film, and that’s something I didn’t expect.

I think the reason for this was because of how conflicted I was when looking at each character. They’re all flawed, greatly flawed, in fact, and this makes it hard for you to initially root for them. While they progress and overcome their flaws throughout the course of movie, your opinion on them will change, but not necessarily to one of respect or admiration.

It takes quite a while to re-build trust once it is broken, but not as long to forget things that have happened. This makes it an odd decision to have Kitty’s indiscretion brought up once again near the end of film. I had almost forgotten–as had the characters–and then it is brought up again. It isn’t addressed directly, I’ll admit that, but it is brought up, and makes both characters feel awkward about it. This just felt odd to me.

There was one other thing that didn’t feel right to me about The Painted Veil, and that was the way the actors communicated with each other. Don’t get me wrong, each actor did a great job, but when they were communicating with one another, it didn’t feel natural. Nobody seemed to have much chemistry with anyone else, which is even stranger when you consider that two of the actors, Watts and Shrieber, are engaged in real life.

But those two things, which aren’t exactly something I would call “problems”, are about the only faults I can find in The Painted Veil. The scenery of China is beautiful, and it is captured on film in a majestic fashion. The soundtrack is also worthy of praise, both setting the mood, while also being a beautiful thing to listen to.

By the end of The Painted Veil, I was thoroughly engrossed by the story. I ended up caring for the characters more than I thought I would and I became emotionally invested in the experience. And yes, I will call watching it an “experience”, because that’s what it is. It’s wonderful film, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.

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