Friday, April 27, 2007

THE PAINTED VEIL - as beautiful and vapid as Kitty before cholera

THE PAINTED VEIL is a handsomely produced adapatation of W Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name. Naomi Watts plays a spoiled English girl who marries a serious bacteriologist (Ed Norton) in a fit of pique and ends up in 1920s China having an affair with Liev Schrieber's charming vice-consul. In revenge, her husband drags her to a cholera-infested town in the interior; murder by another means. She goes, jilted by her lover, and learns her husband's true worth as she enters into his work at the local convent cum infirmary.

The production design and cinematography (Stuart Dryburgh) are absolutely top class. The acting itself is first class too although Norton and Watts are unconvincing in their English accents and Diana Rigg flits in and out of her accent as the French Mother Superior. I also found the orchestral score over-worked - all that echoing Satie! - but fans of soupy melodramas and Merchant-Ivory productions should be happy.

SPOLIERS FOLLOW. But for those who have read Somerset Maugham's novel, this adaptation will leave you feeling a little cheated. Because the novel is very firmly about Kitty Fane's journey from spoiled party girl to grown-up self-aware woman. Indeed, in the novel, Walter Fane is given very little time at all. He exists merely as an inscrutable engine of the plot, whose actions prompt Kitty into self-realisation. There is no soupy death-bed reconciliation - only the bitter realisation that he was delirious as she begged for forgiveness. We see her final humiliation at the hands of her ex-lover's wife and her declaration that she will raise her daughter to be a strong, independent woman - equal to any man. It is stirring stuff, and as much as BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, a novel about the operation of grace on a pretty, harmless, adulterous flapper, raised for nothing better than to marry well.

By contrast, this adaptation is at once more modern and more reactionary. It is modern because the film-makers feel the need to bring our post-colonial liberal angst to bear. The motives of the British, the Catholic missionaries, the Nationalists and the local warlords are all brought into question. The nuns can't just be good people doing good work. They buy babies from the poor and forcibly baptise them: the Mother Superior is in a crisis of faith. But the film is also more reactionary than the novel. We must have a romantic reconciliation between our leading couple. Walter's role must be beefed up to warrant Norton's interest - so there is a lot of time-wasting with local warlords and water-pipes. The death-bed reconciliation is a neat ending and while Kitty does meet her ex-lover in the epilogue, she is gracious and healed rather than angry and raw. Notably, her child is a boy called Walter. There are no dreams of female emancipation.

Poor show.

THE PAINTED VEIL was released in the US in December 2006 and in China, Singapore, Iran, Canada, Russia, Turkey, Lebanon, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Greece, Latvia, Hong Kong and Mexico earlier this year. It is currently playing in the UK and opens in Italy and Iceland in May. It is released on Region 1 DVD in May 2007.

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