The Painted Veil
This third screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel, here directed by John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore) and scripted by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), very successfully opens out Maugham’s astutely written but rather claustrophobic romance. Set in 1920s China, it’s the story of a young English couple, Walter and Kitty Fane (Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, who also co-produced the film), who wed for the wrong reasons and find their marriage foundering swiftly after their arrival in Shanghai, where Walter works as a doctor. In order to put paid to Kitty’s adulterous affair with the local English Vice Consul (Live Schreiber), Walter accepts a job at a remote inland village in a region ravaged by cholera. Once there, the newlyweds find themselves in a battle with more than just the deadly epidemic.
Where Maugham’s novel never stepped outside of either the ex-pat community in Shanghai or the domestic lives of its protagonists, the new film adaptation, which was co-produced with the Chinese government, makes marvellous use of the exotic foreign landscape. Juxtaposed with this enormous alien world, Walter and Kitty’s lives look very fragile indeed, but their transcendence of both this harsh environment and, as a consequence, their marital problems make for a genuinely touching romance and breathtaking cinema. As a period piece, the film invokes genre classics such as Brief Encounter and Doctor Zhivago rather than the pretty but not profound Merchant Ivory fluff.