Bored Housewives in the Time of Cholera. That’s what this film should have been called. Instead, it’s called The Painted Veil because of the moment Kitty finds her husband Walter, whom she’s emotionally hurt (somewhat to his own fault), bed-ridden, dying with incurable Cholera. In the last moments of the ever-reaching-for-poignancy period drama we are faced with the green, leather-like features of the diseased husband (played unconvincingly by Edward Norton), as Kitty (Naomi Watts) holds him close in his last breath.
Surely, you think, she’ll die next by infection – but no. And that’s the kind of love story that director John Curran wants you to sit through. It’s abominable actually. Not only are they a terrible match for each other, but she openly is unattracted and uninspired by Norton’s character at the onset, simply marrying him to find escape from her controlling mother and per chance maybe explore new corners of the world in the process. He asks her to marry him with the added note that he’s moving to rural China to work as a bacteriologist and she concedes.
While in China she of course cheats on him within what seems like weeks. And not with an Asian person mind you, oh no, she finds the first reasonably attractive Caucasian (who just happens to be the square-jawed Liev Schrieber) and gets with him. Understandable, but obviously inconsiderate and what’s even more inconsiderate is how Walter manipulates the situation when he learns of her betrayal. He knows that Kitty is a naive young woman whose sexual needs he can’t fulfill, and he’s so weak that he won’t be left the odd man out, even at the expense of spending the rest of his life with her – a woman he knows (and has known) doesn’t love him. He doesn’t even care enough to stop her in the middle of the adulterous act when given the opportunity. It’s really the saddest part of the film for me personally.
Neither of them wants to be alone in this new world it seems, and that’s the crux of the story. Eventually they are both looking for something to devote their lives to, something to sink their teeth into, and that thing turns out to be serving at a convent in a Cholera-plagued town in rural China. By the end of the film we’ve found out that Watts’s character is now also pregnant and that’s of course the moment when our leading man grows ill. It all happens too textually perfect, and is underscored by the terrible performance on Norton’s part.
Norton’s accent is the first thing that grates on you and after that, it’s just his entire presence in the picture. Brilliant in roles like that of American History X, Norton’s element is just not British period romance epics. Curran should have caught this early on and worked with the gifted actor. Watts’ is less than beautiful in her simple naivety, but fills her character as the film progresses.
The Painted Veil seems to be aspiring to Merchant Ivory production status, but I don’t think it ever gets there. I’m really curious to watch the 1934 version of this story starring the iconic Greta Garbo in a seemingly uncommon role for her: the plain, simpleton housewife.* Played differently, with less obviousness in the characters motives and actions, less flat direction on the part of Curran and less of his clear reliance upon the material being poignant and compelling, this could have been a not only gorgeous but deeply affecting film. Advice to Curran: Don’t always assume just because your audiences are viewing the screen-realized version of a classic novel that you have carte-blanche to let the film tell itself.
*Once I find a copy of The Painted Veil from 1934, I will draw a comparison of the two and re-post.