Monday, February 24, 2014

The Painted Veil (2006) (Movie)

     The Painted Veil (2006) [D: John Curran. Naomi Watts, Edward Norton. Liev Schreiber. Based on a novel by Somerset Maugham] Dr Chris Fane marries Kitty Garstin even though she does not love him. When they are posted to Shanghai, she has an affair with the local British Commissioner. Chris decides to volunteer to help care for cholera victims far inland and if possible stem the epidemic, and gives Kitty an ultimatum: come with him, or face being divorced by him. She follows, and over the next couple of months (the time line is bit fuzzy), they come to love and trust each other again. Then he dies. A few years later, Kitty encounters her ex-lover in London, and closes off all contact with him.
     A typical Somerset plot, simple and predictable from the beginning. So what makes this film so watchable? The careful adaptation, especially of Somerset’s trick of revealing significant details in casual conversation. Much of the time, these details show the central character(s) how they appear to other people, or what they misunderstood or misestimated or simply did not know. Somerset is also very good at revealing the emotions that the characters hide from themselves and from each other. His stories are about how people come to know themselves; but self-knowledge rarely leads to happiness.
     The movie’s script is first rate, not only in the dialogue, but in the visuals, which are used to link and frame the essential scenes that tell the central story, the near destruction of the marriage and its painful rebuilding. China was undergoing the Nationalist reforms that eventually triggered the Maoist wars and brought it into the 20th century. This and the cholera epidemic add the lethal dangers that make their reconciliation more crucial to Chris and Kitty, while at the same time commenting on their privileged status and their slow realisation of the injustices and social perils that surround them.
     The secondary plots and characters, the repeated views of the surrounding landscape (in the vicinity of the Three Gorges), and the varying narrative rhythm  give us a sense of a complete world. I don’t know to what extent this is the moviemakers’ contribution, and how much comes from Somerset’s novel, but it works. A well done movie, recommended. ***

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