In The Painted Veil, Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts) is stuck in rural China, 1925, and if the rebels or the cholera don’t kill her, the boredom certainly will. However, for her, the real villain is her husband Walter (Edward Norton), a pale, blah bacteriologist, who has dragged her here to Ghuangzhou Province as revenge for her affair with a dashing Shanghai expat named Charlie (Liev Schreiber). Outside the gates of their wooden shack (whose former occupants succumbed to the 36-hour killer bacteria), brokenhearted Walter mucks through infested lakes and wells and hospitals as medical heroism distracts him from his failed marriage. But inside, where we are, Kitty is pacing the walls with tedium. And inside of her, our leading lady, is a shallow, thoughtless soul that longs to return to the society parties back in England.
It was at one of those parties two years earlier where she met her future husband and danced with him without remembering his name, until her father brought it up the next morning as her mother carped about Kitty’s failing marriageability. The most romantic thing about Walter, who “doesn’t have time for courtship,” is that he was leaving in weeks for China—and China is half a world away from Mommie Dearest’s opinions on womanhood, which Kitty dubs “prehistoric.” She expects life with Walter in Shanghai to be one of luxurious bondage, but this slow and humid film doesn’t get interesting until Kitty is ripped from China’s exotic—if dull—cocktail parties (and Charlie’s bed) and forced onto a rickshaw headed for death.
Novelist W. Somerset Maugham—England’s J.K. Rowling of 1920—used his novels, including Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence and The Painted Veil to explore the divide between manners and desires, and lust and duty. Which means his plots are heavy on the melodrama plus stilted conversations where everyone is too polite to talk about what they’re all thinking—which, in Kitty’s case, is “I know you took me out here to die.” Unfortunately, this makes the first half of John Curran’s handsome adaptation leading up to their murderous move seem like a parody of those self-serious Merchant Ivory pictures where everyone lounges about in full dress staring portentously at the chandelier. During this same chunk, poor Naomi Watts has nothing to give her unlikable society girl besides sighs of boredom; she’s the type of humorless bimbo who’d rather blame everyone else for her ennui than get tipsy and slap on a lampshade.
A bald and grotty Toby Jones (who’s turn as Capote in last year’s Infamous was first rate) helps deglamorize the moral decay as a stationed Englishman named Waddington with a taste for the local ladies, as Watts and Norton comport themselves decently through their stiff characters’ awkward dinners and conversations where “thank you” can twist into a rebuke. Yet as Kitty thaws before her husband’s devotion to the sick villagers, Curran squeezes out a few drops of humanity from watching two icicles melt. Walter hopes to convince the Chinese to bury their infected dead away from their water supply, but faces resistance from native beliefs about passage to the other world. Included in their tenets is the belief that death is destiny, but as this film allows us to deride that as superstition, it loses the chance to parallel it with the emotions behind Kitty and Walter’s morbid move to the center of a plague. Death is everyone’s destiny. But for these fatalistic lovers (and their audience), it’s also our deliverance from tedium.