“The Painted Veil” is a hard sell of a movie, an Oscar hopeful that so desperately wants to take a story in one direction that it forces its characters to reinvent themselves in a way that seems unlikely, if not outright absurd. And it does so at the expense of another story that could have been equally or even more compelling. Thing start bleakly, as an English physician (Edward Norton) based in Hong Kong discovers that his wife (Naomi Watts) is having an affair. Incensed with her infidelities, he officiously announces that he has accepted a medical appointment in rural China, where a deadly cholera outbreak has been reported and that she will be joining him. Journeying far from Hong Kong, Walter leads her into the jungle. When they arrive, an air of silence erupts between them; Walter leaves every day to tend to the village’s poisoned water supply, its angry citizens, and its soaring body count, while Kitty sits at home with little to do.
Here, Hollywood returns to its oft-used storyline of white elites journeying into the heart of darkness. In focusing on the beautiful movie stars, Western audiences come to see the foreigners merely as window dressing for the “real” story, and as waves of nameless characters die in this movie due to disease, or in “Blood Diamond” due to greedy, murderous jewel smugglers we are guided to focus on the fates of the outsiders, not the pain or agony that surrounds them.
Is this an unfair simplification? Perhaps, but in “The Painted Veil,” the formula is repeated. In one obvious scene, as disease and water shortages ravage the town, director John Curran focuses instead on the safety of Kitty (Naomi Watts), the doctor’s wife, as she sits in her fortified cabin, watching the pain from afar. And later, as the corpses pile up on the outskirts, the camera instead is shuttled quickly through that human agony to a tent, where we worry more about the state of Walter and Kitty’s marriage.
The problem with “Painted Veil” is partly this that the focus of the film minimizes the bigger horrors of pain and suffering in the third world but also partly that as a romance, it relies on a change of heart too profound to be believed.
Once Kitty gradually emerges from her cocoon, finding the local church and volunteering to aid its orphans, Walter finds ways of providing the town with clean water. Collectively their selfish walls start to break down, and they rediscover each other in a fiery burst of passion as a water-less, dying city goes to bed down the hill.
It’s a love scene that seems out of place. Essentially, Curran is asking us to believe that the heart of this man, who only a few days earlier was content with his wife contracting a deadly disease, has been changed by the fact that she is teaching a group of orphans to dance. And her heart too has been changed by the fact that Walter is working so tirelessly for a good cause that he falls asleep next to his microscope.
Norton, playing Walter as a quiet, introverted, but fiercely committed man of science, and Watts, overcoming her character’s initial shallowness to convey a woman experiencing some sort of self-discovery, are not to blame. Nor is the source material: W. Somerset Maugham’s 1915 novel.
The biggest culprit is that thing called Oscar, and the way that both passion and tragedy must arise in any film through late December in hopes of working a voter’s heartstrings. “The Painted Veil” is a compelling story about a marriage degenerating into a callous game of life-and-death and the bitterness of a broken heart, as well as an interesting tale about Westerners discovering within themselves their capacity to care and help those confronting a hopeless situation.
But it’s the film’s awkward transition into a romantic tragedy, with all that death and angst forced into the background, that never quite clicks. As Humphrey Bogart might say, Walter and Kitty’s love, amidst all this suffering and desperation, isn’t worth a hill of beans.