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The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil is a lushly photographed, costume-drama actor's piece, soggy in the second half from melodrama. It tries to unmask misguided attraction between two lovers in 1920's China, but it unravels under its own conceits.


The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), who tackles amorphous, movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist, who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts), an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age, at a party. Walter, not smooth with women, woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye, Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat, Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate, green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease, albeit framed beautifully and exotically.


Norton and Watts take producers' credits, as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made, painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way, a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film, The Illusionist, he was a similarly powerful, opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she's on autopilot, Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty, who doesn't love the man she married, even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky, darting eyes, mixed with uneasy body language, tells us we don't know what to expect, other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor.


The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness, right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore), especially with difficult material, and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail, however (minus Norton's highlighted hair), is superb. Four exquisite, wisely picked Chinese locations were used, in concert with local actors and crew, to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class, underlying the movie's ''painted,'' hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall, like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha, the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.