The Painted Veil


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



19 November

Since 2001, 19 November has been World Toilet Day, as decreed by the World Toilet Organization. Considering that certain social groupings in the English-speaking world can barely bring themselves to use the word “toilet” in its most common sense, preferring “lavatory”, “loo” “bathroom” “restroom” or whatever, World Toilet Day’s 2012 slogan, “I give a shit, do you?” is your proverbial breath of fresh, if faintly scented, air. Kicking into limbo the argument that “toilet” is itself a euphemism – that way madness lies – World Toilet Day has a very simple agenda: to eliminate the taboo surrounding discussion of all things toilet, and to improve sanitation worldwide. The World Toilet Organization, and before that its spiritual parent, the Restroom Association of Singapore, was set up by Jack Sim, a social entrepreneur who decided to use the money he had made in the construction business for humanitarian purposes. Thanks to Sim’s campaigning, and his flair for showmanship and humour, Singapore building regulations were changed to promote “potty parity” (ie equal number of toilet stalls for women). US Congress has since embraced a similar proposal. Sim is a council member of the World Economic Forum, works with Bill Clinton to promote sanitation and his SaniShop franchise has worked out affordable sanitation systems for the poor. The World Toilet Day website points out that investing $1 in sanitation generates a return of $5, because it is a cornerstone of social and economic development, and that there are 2.5 billion people on the planet who don’t have a safe, clean and private toilet.

The Painted Veil (2006, dir: John Curran)

A very old fashioned sort of film that will appeal to lovers of The English Patient, The Painted Veil is a love story set against a backdrop of turbulent political times, set in China as Mao and Chiang Kai Shek are squaring off. It’s based on a Somerset Maugham story, and stars Ed Norton and Naomi Watts. The plot more or less goes like this – flighty Watts has married studious Norton on a whim and, to keep a bit of zip into her life, has been having an affair with hunky Liev Schreiber. Her doctor husband Norton finds out and, as punishment, takes the pair of them off to minister to the sick in a remote part of China where an epidemic of cholera, the disease spread by faecal contamination of drinking water, is raging. The doctor husband is clearly hoping to damn them both to an early death while dying for the noblest of causes, out of spite. What actually plays out there is a surprise, at least to the cuckolding wife, and to say any more is to enter the forbidden zone of spoilers. What I will say though is that the images on display are ravishing, cinematographically – the river, domestic interiors, Watts’s legs (three long lingering shots suggests someone really goes a bundle on legs) – and the supporting cast are top drawer, Toby Jones in particular as one of those addled imperial Brits who likes a drink, loves the opium and has gone native, setting up house with a local woman. Goodness and forgiveness are the film’s themes – is long-suffering Norton a good man or a coward hiding behind virtue? Can Watts atone for breaking the sacred bond of marriage? It is, in other words, about as uncool as a modern film can be. But only a fool believes in cool when there’s artistry – the cinematography, editing, acting, soundtrack and direction are all meticulously controlled – at this high level.

Why Watch?

  • Edward Norton as an Englishman in a straw hat
  • Compare to the original 1934 film version starring Greta Garbo and the 1957 version (called The Seventh Sin)
  • A good example of a Chinese/US co-production, a current phenomenon
  • A film intended for Oscar glory that never got marketed properly


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Painted Veil – at Amazon





4 thoughts on “The Painted Veil”

  1. The Painted Veil has all of the elements a viewer looks for in a period piece set during the time of British colonial rule. Beautiful scenery and costumes, a cast of thousands, and enough background information to make you feel you are more educated about a time and place than you were before you saw the movie.

    What this film offers the fortunate viewer that many other movies of its kind do not, are lead characters you can actually empathize with and grow to care about. "Walter" and "Kitty" are far more likable and worth rooting for than- I don't know, let's say- Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas in the English Patient (see? I don't even remember their characters' names.) The movie's tagline- "Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people" succinctly points to the heart of this film, and what makes it work so well; the journey of a couple who married for the wrong reasons towards true intimacy with each other.

    On one level, the plot is so simple and straightforward that a one line summary gives the whole story away, and for that reason, I will refrain from providing that information as much as possible. It is enough to know that it is the story of The Fanes- Walter, the shy, bookish bacteriologist, and Kitty, the shallow, haughty young woman he becomes infatuated in and persuades to marry him. Walter takes Kitty to Shanghai, where he works in a government lab. Circumstances lead Walter to re-locate them to a more remote area of China in the throes of a cholera epidemic. It is in this setting that the parallel stories unfold; the story of a doctor and his wife living in the house of a dead missionary's family as the doctor tries to get control of the conditions responsible for the epidemic, and the story of the couple's journey towards re-discovering each other.

    The impressive skill that Ms. Watts and Mr. Norton bring to their work truly makes you believe that that the first challenge- combating cholera amid colonial unrest and nationalist hostilities is easier than the task of repairing a damaged marriage, and with each uneasy glance and every unsaid word, you feel what these two people feel. And that is the beauty of The Painted Veil. Fans of Ms. Watts and Mr. Norton will have reason to rejoice- this is a performance unlike any I have ever seen Ms. Watts give. There is nothing of what was becoming her trademark "emotionally fragile woman in shambles" persona on display here. And what of Edward Norton? Well, after his turn in The Illusionist earlier in the year and now "Walter Fane," all I can say is, move over, Ralph Fiennes- there's a new sexy "repressed, stiff-upper-lipped, sensually simmering under the surface" leading man in town.

    The Painted Veil is an intelligently adapted, well-directed film with two charismatic, award-worthy lead performances and a strong supporting cast, including Liev Schreiber, Diana Rigg, and most notably Toby Jones as the Fanes' neighbor. It is also wonderfully entertaining, and a good introduction to the period piece/historical epic genre some viewers have been avoiding due to fear of suffocation.

  2. My girlfriend and I went to a free movie screening – you know, the kind they pass out flyers for. In our case, it was an offer from a survey website.

    I can't say enough about how much we loved this film. The cinematography was absolutely stunning. The story was compelling and heart-wrenching and masterfully portrayed by both Ed Norton and Naomi Watts.

    I was a little leery at first when I realized that Ed Norton was going to have to use an English accent throughout the film. But to my untrained ear, it sounded very authentic and did not detract from the film at all.

    My friend and I have been looking out for The Painted Veil ever since we saw it. Meanwhile, it's already almost November and we haven't heard anything about its release.

    We both strongly recommend that you see this movie when it comes out. You won't be disappointed. (By the way, there were some men in the audience and they also thought it was excellent, so it's not necessarily a chick flick.")

  3. Naomi Watts is every bit as good as Garbo was in the 1934 version, and Ed Norton is outstanding. Great supporting cast as well – Diana Rigg is almost unrecognizable as a Mother Superior, and Liev Schreiber is, as always, terrific as a slimy lowlife. Based on one of Somerset Maugham's best stories, this is a movie that will satisfy anyone looking for an old-fashioned, romantic drama about love lost and love earned. The social quandary of British women after the first World War, which created a generation of unwilling spinsters, is taken as seriously by the filmmakers as the emergence of a new China standing up to its Colonial oppressors. Watts' character's journey from spoiled, selfish Daddy's girl in 1920's fun-loving London to a mature woman in a deprived, cholera-infested third-world country is harrowing.

  4. I think is the tone of the film –– and by that I mean everything from the cinematography to the dialogue the music and, most of all, the nuanced performances –– which, because it is so consistent and so consistently sublime renders the film far apart from the ordinary.

    I was interested to see that Naomi Watts and Edward Norton produced this film. No matter which of them (or, for that matter, any one of the film's fine cast) is on the screen, we are fully involved: they invite us into their story, they invite us to care.

    Even if one were to strip away the performances and the story there is still the sheer beauty of the Chinese countryside, filmed to perfection.

    Just go, and see for yourself.

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