The odd, unbalanced structure of The Painted Veil becomes apparent early on, when an opening scene set in the lush green wilds of China, where a couple of Westerners sit silent and unperturbed by the falling rain, is abruptly interrupted by a flashback. The film seesaws for a while back and forth between the enigmatic scenes of the man and woman being carried by Chinese men to their ultimate remote destination and a parallel narrative taking place first in London and then Shanghai, which details how the man, a bacteriologist named Walter (Edward Norton), met the woman, a socialite named Kitty (Naomi Watts), and the circumstances of their emotionally spectacular falling-out.
All this expository business is breathlessly pretty and excruciatingly dull in classic cinema-of-quality fashion. But the story snaps into vivid focus about 25 minutes in, during a scene of enormous impact and cruelty that has Walter giving Kitty an object lesson in the mechanics of revenge. He knows that she has been having an affair with a local pretty boy (Liev Schreiber). As punishment, he intends to force her to accompany him as he volunteers for a dangerous assignment caring for villagers in a cholera-stricken Chinese province. They will travel into the heart of the epidemic without inoculations, and they may die. It goes unspoken that Walter wishes that it might be so — that he has not only lost the will to live, but hopes that if he succeeds in committing a roundabout suicide, he may manage to take his wife with him. All she has to do to avoid the trip (it’s out of the question, of course) is allow him to divorce her as an adulteress.
That’s a wicked set-up for an unconventional love story — and The Painted Veil has some generally absorbing, occasionally provocative ideas. It’s about the presence of generally well-meaning outsiders in a developing country, and how the native peoples aren’t necessarily grateful for the help they’re receiving from without. (In its exploration of local hostility toward the British in China, it can be read as a sly political parable — just because you’re trying to Do the Right Thing doesn’t mean you’ll be greeted as a liberator when you march into someone else’s country and start telling them how to live their lives.) And Walter’s deeply twisted death wish for himself and his wife casts a shadow over their eventual reconciliation that keeps it from smacking of flowers and sunshine. (Full disclosure: I have not seen director John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore, but thought his 1998 feature, Praise, was very good.)
So The Painted Veil is not without merit, but what’s really disappointing is the rampant obviousness of the screenplay. Watts and Norton are both highly expressive actors, but here those emotions are underlined (and undermined) at every turn by literal-minded dialogue that has them yapping aloud to explain how they’re feeling. The effect is a film in which the point of each scene, more or less, is explained out loud. It’s lacking all subtlety.* For example, the slightly dumpy Deputy Commissioner Waddington (another Brit living abroad) is glimpsed spending his downtime with a foxy, oft-semi-nude Manchu woman (Yu Lin). It’s a nicely ambiguous touch that suggests the deeper mysteries of human interactions — until the scene later on where the film insists on explaining the particulars of their relationship. When Walter travels with a local officer, Colonel Yu (the great Anthony Wong), to ask a neighboring warlord for help, his (obviously unhelpful) response is detailed in subtitles — the film thus explains details that its main characters, through whose eyes we have been experiencing this world, would not be privy to.
In fact, I suspect the whole film could be improved tremendously if the flashback sequences, which are dispatched efficiently and without much passion in the opening reels, were elided entirely. True, you’d jettison Norton’s single best scene — but then again you could work it into the fabric of the rest of the picture somehow, and maybe allow the audience to discover for itself the mechanics of his misery. Viewers are given no room for discovery, and precious little for interpretation. The effect is less sophisticated literary adaptation, more picture book geared to children. It’s not an experience I relish. C
* I lodged similar complaints about Philadelphia, for which The Painted Veil’s screenwriter actually won an Oscar nomination, so I’m obviously not on the same wavelength as Hollywood where subtlety and the lack thereof are concerned.