Directed by: John Curran
Premise: Set in the 1920s, a woman (Naomi Watts) in a loveless marriage has an affair. After discovering this, her bacteriologist husband (Edward Norton) takes her to the countryside of China where a cholera epidemic has spread among the villagers.
What Works: The Painted Veil is an impressive period picture. It opens like many other period films with lots of formal dialogue, soap opera dramatics, and stuffy costumes and stagy sets. But two elements distinguish this film. First, lead actors Naomi Watts and Edward Norton give a pair of terrific performances. Their characters are alternatively sympathetic and awful; Watts’ character is initially a spoiled and selfish woman but her character’s confession to her affair makes her motives understandable. On the other hand, Norton begins as a soft spoken and generally good natured man but after discovering the affair, he reveals a sinister and vindictive side of his personality. As the couple travels into the countryside and are forced to live and work in difficult conditions they reconcile their relationship in ways that are organic and credible. The love story between them is much more believable than many other Hollywood romances because it requires sacrifice, effort, and gestures of love by the couple that visualize the bonds between them. As the film moves from the city and into the countryside, it achieves its second distinction. Many historical films tend to present their stories and characters in a very formal way that often comes across as artificial. The Painted Veil goes the other way; it is very organic and lived in and the suffering of the cholera patients is particularly horrifying. The film’s willingness to indulge a little bit of horror escalates the threat of the disease and the heroism and love of the couple as they cope with the conditions.
What Doesn’t: The Painted Veil does have a predictable story as the couple faces issues bigger than themselves which draw the characters closer together. Of the two leads, the film expects more repentance from Watts’ character, as a storytelling penance for her adultery, but by comparison the film lets Norton’s character off the hook for his implicit death wish for his wife. The theme of the story is set around the characters overcoming their sins against one another but the film clearly sides more with one than the other and that is cause for some consternation by the viewer.
DVD extras: None.
Bottom Line: Despite its predictability, The Painted Veil is a very good romantic drama. It manages to distinguish itself among period films and has a pair of terrific performances by Naomi Watts and Edward Norton.
Episode: #339 (May 15, 2011)