Painted Veil: Film Review

Directed by: John Madden, Runtime: 125 minutes
Grade: B+

It's always fantastic when a film meets or exceeds expectations. The Painted Veil, the romantic yarn from director John Curran, achieves such composure in these eyes. Though, frankly, it wasn't what was expected. Adapted from the W. Somerset Maugham novel, this '20s era dramatic love story embraces a sumptuous beauty amidst lovely, understated achievements from both Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. This is quite the display of visual, aural, and theatrical confection.

Set primarily in China during the 1920s, The Painted Veil takes us on a journey through the lost emotional whimsy of Kitty (Naomi Watts), a London metropolitan. She wishes nothing more to escape the clutches of her demeaning family and to enjoy the simple aesthetic pleasures of another life. In steps Walter (Edward Norton), an austere bacteriologist with a shy yet determined disposition and a wholly obsessed drive for his work. His government position keeps him bolted in Shanghai, a locale many moons away from London that proves to be enticing for the not-so-enamored Kitty. Walter proposes to Kitty, which ensues in a marriage instigated by all the wrong reasons that explodes in a smattering of ill will shortly thereafter.

Amidst the fireworks of a sputtering marriage, Walter jumps on an opportunity to help amidst a horrible cholera epidemic in a remote Chinese town. Dragged within the clutches of a now stringent Walter, Kitty delves into the epidemic as well. It's a tumultuous journey for a condemned couple into a condemned area that seems to have no shining light in sight. However, their path is also a glorious tribulation of growth and understanding, both for Kitty's void recoil and Walter's headstrong brashness.

It's hard to get over the aesthetic splendor atop The Painted Veil's melancholy romantic nature. Foremost, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's visual achievement is flat-out mesmerizing. There's such a simple, wispy vigor within the shots, not so much enchanting for the scenery but for the way even simple scenes are achieved. It doesn't hurt, though, that the epidemic happens to take place in a lush, glistening gem of a locale in the outskirts of China. Furthermore, the incredible Golden Globe winning score from Alexandre Desplat swirls and swims with the lavish scenery, giving this film the aural richness needed to parlay with the majestic visuals.

Not even considering the physical prowess, The Painted Veil is a sublime, rapturously beautiful piece of filmmaking. It resonates with a timeless narrative reminiscent of classic Hollywood romance. Pure, sweet magic shimmers within each scene as if meticulously etched into raw jade with a pick and hammer. There's not a plethora of high-impact scenes or stringently potent aggression amidst this bittersweet tale of subdued punishment. When they do arise, they arrive with gallant strength. Curran's newest piece takes a gracefully gentle pace with understated, nuanced performances atypical of the two leads.

Make no mistake that The Painted Veil is, in fact, a Naomi Watts vehicle. Kitty's tale of complex, muddled emotion takes the rings as the central conflict of the film. At the start, she's an empty shell, focused on surface eccentricities and an undemanding escape from her life. Watts nails down this persona quite admirably, displaying ample timidity and hollowness. Much like a mass of clay ready for molding, Kitty starts unshapely and gradually melds into another form through careful, subtle pressures. It's a part that requires deterring vacancy, and Watts handles her with supple poise.

As ample as Kitty's portrayal is, she wouldn't hold the same assets without an equally precise Walter. He could easy hold monstrous properties, but it's only through Edward Norton's sensibly crafted performance that his realism and integrity shine. Instead of brazen aggression like his outings in Fight Club and American History X, Norton adheres to careful, quiet electricity for Walter. He parries wonderfully with Watts' equally delicate performance, assembling a finicky dance between the two that lends an enthralling air to their duel. The lack of aggression from both Kitty and Walter perfectly suits the scenario, their characters, and the period in which this all occurs.

All this wistful splendor unfolds with delicate, sweeping glory. Hold no doubt that this is a tale about the writhing, duly correctable mistakes of misguided lovers. Many a theatric within The Painted Veil leans on the saccharine side of echoing romanticism. That's what makes this film's narrative so pleasant, however. Sure, there's a remotely foreseeable bow to be tied atop a pretty package. Watching these two unfurl amidst this horrible epidemic, however, keeps the story on a radiant level. The Painted Veil maintains a credible, silky keel that's wholly pleasant to run your fingers through from start to finish.


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