The Painted Veil stands as the pinnacle of dramatic paradox- a love story in which the characters do not, in fact, love each other. The third of the movie renditions off W. Somerset Maughams 1925 novel, The Painted Veil evokes the pulsating tale of Kittys impulsive I do and Dr. Walter Fanes abused adoration- together, Edward Nortons thrilling passivity and Naomi Watts talent for scowls enthrall the eye in this spectacle of betrayal, ultimatum and renewal.
In a vain attempt not to be outdone by the younger sister, Kitty Garstin (Naomi Watts) haphazardly marries the odd and practical, Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton). Watts exhibits her role as just the self-absorbed, rotten beauty that Kitty is; all the while the brilliant Norton does his duty as the wall paper in Kittys story. Freedom from the humdrum of her dull life as a bacteriologists wife comes to Kitty in the form of the dapper Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber), who sweeps her off her dainty feet and onto the bed on more than one occasion. We watch as the adulterous couple fraternize behind the bed screens and locked doors of the Fane residence at Shanghai, waiting for Dr. Fane to catch them- and waiting... For what? The mastery behind the scenes of betrayal lies in the unnerving lack of response from the not-so-blind Husband Fane- he knows. We know he knows. And the tension builds until the thrilling implosion that is Kitty and Walters marriage, as Norton displays the straining, murderous control of his character: the best of the lines exists as Fanes utterance upon confronting Kitty, if you interrupt me one more time, Ill strangle you. That said, Dr. Fane gives Kitty an ultimatum in which lies the basis of the story: leave with him to the cholera-overrun Mei Tan Fu, or marry Townsend. Beloved Charles disappoints with an unexpected and lasting dedication to his wife, and merely shows Kitty the door; from here, the miserable Fane couple spirits off on a punishing trek to the neverlands of China.
The setting of Mei tan Fu exists almost as an anti-honeymoon for the morose and bitter couple- the lush scenery flaunts a hypnotically enticing backdrop that serves to highlight the conflict within the story. Walter and Kitty live within circles of each other, merely coexisting because thats all they can do. What more, Walter Fane has to contend with the growing struggle between Chinese Nationalists and Westerners, and the resulting aggression from Mei Tan Fu residents. The Painted Veil throbs with the anticipation of a love story; something has to give. Eventually, something does. Taking the advice of their neighbor, Waddington (Toby Jones), Kitty ventures from her self-inflicted hell and attempts to aid the local hospice in caring for orphans and malaised villagers. At this point, the two worlds of Kitty and Walter break the circling pattern and collide. Kitty is introduced to the virtue of her husband, to which she was ignorant of before, and Walter falls yet again for his wife as she crawls out of her selfish interests. Watts performed flawlessly as the utterly dejected Kitty, but her appearance is diminished by the attempt to illustrate Kittys happiness- it feels foreign, and grotesquely cliche. Norton offsets this nicely, with his genuine passive aggressive reactions, yet obvious undertones of absolute infatuation. Towards the end of the movie the audience has come to expect the worse: of course, the unhappy couple sparked, and reconnected in their love; of course, one will die. The only question remained, who? Unfortunately, lovely, lovely Dr. Fane died a heros ironic death, in which he was killed by what hed aimed to alleviate- cholera.
One could reduce The Painted Veil as a beautiful, yet simple plot with insubstantial characters, but then, theyve missed it. Theyve missed what makes The Painted Veil memorable, what brings viewers to tears at the end of the (honestly, predictable) conclusion. Its the idea that Kitty emerged from her conceited cocoon to blossom for her adoring husband just too late- but she did so in a surreal environment without which it would never have happened. In any other setting, the Fanes would have remained unhappy and sour. It was within the erotic haze of the beating Mei Tan Fu that Kitty and Water discovered each other, and lost each other. For any transgressions due to obviousness and excessive elegance in scenery, forgive them.