No one has caught the pride, remorse and pain of an unloved and possibly unlovable husband better than Edward Norton in The Painted Veil.
As Walter Fane, a British government bacteriologist based in Hong Kong (circa 1925), Norton has the precise carriage and clear high voice of an educated fellow of his class and time, along with the sharp ethical gaze of a man on a mission. Whenever he sets eyes on his wife, Kitty (Naomi Watts), his composure shatters, first in helpless adoration, then in self-laceration.
Kitty marries him in a panic at being trapped on the lower edge of proper London society, vulnerable to her mother's disapproval and her own boredom. But she finds she doesn't know what malaise is until she reaches Hong Kong with her new spouse. As Walter buries himself in work, Kitty falls victim to the amorous wiles of the assistant colonial secretary, Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). Discovering their affair, Walter elects to attack a rural cholera epidemic head-on, and through a complicated mix of emotional blackmail, foresight and insight, gets Kitty to go with him to a remote village named Mei-tan-fu.
What ensues has all the makings of an antique melodrama, complete with a giddy, shallow woman who finds her moral bearings by working at a convent. But in this adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel, the cast, the screenwriter (Ron Nyswaner) and the director (John Curran) scrape the varnish off the period piece and find unexpected colors underneath. In some ways, the material is intractable; there's only so much romanticism you can pump into Maugham's cutting account of British colonial insularity and a straying woman's comeuppance.
But you may be too engrossed or touched to complain. After all, this film of The Painted Veil gives us the splendid Watts breathing life into a sad young British woman with a yen for experience and a family forcing her to be proper in the flapper age. And the movie gives us the surprisingly sympathetic and uproarious Toby Jones as a seedy-sprightly British official in Mei-tan-fu named Waddington. Jones earns the praise he won as Truman Capote in Infamous by setting the whole dated notion of "going native" topsy-turvy. Here, it's a good thing.
Curran, Nyswaner, Norton and company can't quite pull off what writer-director Neil Jordan did with Graham Greene's The End of the Affair - expand the tortured relationship at the heart of a beautifully austere moral tale into a grand passion. (For starters, Maugham isn't as austere or beautiful as Greene.) But they make something tender and moving out of the attempt. They go way beyond the 1934 Greta Garbo movie, which is a piece of studio-made exotica and an awful relic. The grandeur of the Chinese landscapes doesn't mock the characters: it enlarges everyone, including Waddington's hedonistic humanist and an order of nuns (led by a luminous Diana Rigg) who succeed in uniting duty and a kind of love.
Norton does such a super-intelligent job of conveying Walter's displaced erotic energy and Watts such a supremely instinctive turn as a woman whose compassion leads her toward deeper, steadier passions that the moment when they reach their own communion becomes funny, sad, sweet, sexy - everything it should be. The movie is an emotional teeter-totter before and afterward. Yet an audience gets engrossed in the couple's ups and downs, and the filmmakers work their oscillations into the unpredictable fabric of a Western life transported to Asia.
Sketching the tumult in the streets and the tension between the warlords and internationally trained government officers, director Curran, unlike Maugham, makes the most of Chinese nationalism coming to a rapid boil - one more element in the story's dramatic pressure cooker. And I mean "pressure cooker" in a specific sense, not as some generic metaphor. Both as a man in an unhappy marriage and a would-be Western savior in China, Walter lacks the valve that would release his steam-heat and make it work for him. He lacks, that is, any gift for emotional expression, whether he's communicating with his wife or with the peasants he attempts to help by trampling on their native customs and engineering new, sanitary water routes.
Walter's rival, Charlie Townsend, turns out to be all expression: fake expression. But Watts creates a woman so yearning for sensuality and adoration that the mere taste and appearance of it in Charlie are enough for her. What's extraordinary about Norton's performance is that he conveys the bruised feelings beneath the bloodless exterior even when Walter is at his most shriveling, telling Kitty he despises not her, but himself, for having loved her. What's extraordinary about Watts' performance is that she suggests the bedrock decency and sensitivity that would still make her hope to have a real married life with Walter.
The way the moviemakers round off the material may be too clever, too neat. "The painted veil which those who live call Life," goes the novel's epigraph, and by the end Kitty gets to see through life with a clearer tint.
At its core, though, this movie is about simple strokes of communication breaking through illusions and forging connections that can transcend even the painted veil of life and the transparent one of death.
>>>The Painted Veil (Warner Independent) Starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones. Directed by John Curran. Rated PG-13. Time 124 minutes.