The W. Somerset Maugham story The Painted Veil gets yet another screen adaptation, this time directed by John Curran. This version, the first in nearly 50 years, is able to get a little closer to the action, and yet in some ways is so tuned in to the action at hand that is misses the world going on around it.
Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) adapted this version, and minces nary a moment in establishing his scenario: Flibbertigibbet Kitty (Naomi Watts), reeling from her sister’s marriage, pairs off with the dull Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) who she meets at a society function in 1925 London, though she feels no ardor for him. Quickly they move from Europe to China so that he may conduct research, but much of the action occurs within apartments and offices. It is difficult to recognize anything of the Orient in their setting.
Kitty is utterly despondent with her new life, and quickly pairs off with American diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). But the affair, an ongoing matter in the first part of the novel, is glimpsed only in one scene. In fact, the same moment when the audience learns they are together is the same one in which they are discovered by Fane and end their tryst. It is important to be concise, but not to the point when atmosphere and character get thrown out the window. We never learn if this was love or just lust. Were they ever worried about being caught? Curran shoehorns an awful lot of plot in his first moments.
Especially given that it takes ages for the rest of the movie to unfold. Fane finally confronts Kitty, and gives her an ultimatum. She can either accompany him to cholera-ridden Hong Kong, or he will divorce her, assuring her social ruin. The very married Charlie has no plans to leave his wife, thus leaving Kitty with no choice but to travel to one of the most dangerous corners of the world. The passive-aggressive Fane goes out of his way to punish her, but eventually, the shallow, shallow Kitty redeems herself and begins to care for the local children of expatriates. Oddly enough, though, none of these children, or any other prominent characters, are Chinese. Toby Jones, last seen (but probably not by many) as the other Truman Capote in Infamous is terrific as Waddington, another white man who has made a home for himself in Asia, letting himself go to seed in every which way.
Veil is Watts’ movie from start to finish, and darn if she isn’t fantastic. It’s hard to shed contempt for a character with such frivolous taste, but she finds all of the sympathetic corners of Kitty’s personality, and makes her transition to a more caring woman fully believable. Eventually, the war between Kitty and Walter even subsides, and Norton makes more sense when connecting with her than when rejecting her (as for his accent, though, vaguely European but not British or German or anything identifiable, it is way too phony and takes me out of the movie at every turn).
Nyswaner excises the last important plot developments from the novel, depriving Veil of an important coda and also making the film’s second half feel way too slow, providing so little to which it can build. By the end of the film, I understood where Kitty’s journey had taken her, but I was never quite as convinced that she did.