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Coco Forsythe

Published April 27th, 2007 | by Coco Forsythe

The Painted Veil Review

Classification: 12A Director: John Curran Rating: 4.5/5

I liked The Painted Veil so much I immediately went out and read the book. Which was unexpected, as I really wasn’t expecting much. But this is a lovely, slow-burning, grown-up love story, set in a landscape so beautiful that it makes you want to weep.

Kitty (Watts) is an upper-class English girl in the 1920’s. An extremely pretty, vivacious girl who has somehow failed in her one job in life, to secure herself a suitable husband. In danger of being left on the shelf, and forced to endure a lifetime of spinsterhood trapped in a house with her battleaxe of a mother, Kitty rashly accepts a proposal from Walter Fane (Norton), a young middle-class doctor. Walter is on leave from his post in Shanghai, and he and Kitty return there after their marriage, where Kitty begins to realise how little they have in common. She, typical of her class and education, lives for parties and entetrtainment, whereas Walter is a quiet, serious man, dedicated to his work as a bacteriologist. Nevertheless, in the hope of pleasing his young wife, Walter takes her out into the world of British colonial society, where they meet the English Vice-Consul Charles Townsend (Shreiber) and his wife.

Kitty and Charlie embark on an affair that gives Kitty’s life a new meaning. Unfortunately they are less than discreet, and when Walter finds out he presents her with an ultimatum; he has taken a job in a remote village in an area ravaged by cholera, and he forces Kitty to accompany him. Kitty, humiliated by Charlie’s betrayal, and with no other choice, agrees. Walter seizes every petty and spiteful opportunity for revenge – taking the longest possible overland route to Mei-tan-fu, forcing Kitty to stay in the house while he goes to work every day. But Kitty is not entirely without resources, and she makes friends – with their neighbour, Waddington (Jones), an unconventional and kindly man, with an opium habit and a Manchurian lover (Yu Lin), and with the missionary nuns, especially their Mother Superior (Rigg). Helping out at the orphanage, her eyes are opened at last, and she discovers that her reserved, bookish husband is a passionate, selfless and kind man.

Of course Walter is far from perfect; he is often priggish and cold. The cholera comes as a frightful shock to him, for he has never practised medicine. But he has fallen passionately in love with his young wife and her betrayal makes him cruel. Both characters have to grow up and forgive each other. It’s this emotional journey that is so compelling, and is beautifully performed and directed. Norton’s performance is particularly subtle, and Toby Jones is once again excellent as Waddington, the Englishman gone native. Watts, an actress whom I often find annoying, succeeds brilliantly in depicting Kitty’s growth from frivolous butterfly to responsible adult. Oh, and all the accents and period mannerisms are spot on.

And then there’s that scenery. China is ravishing; every shot looking like one of those misty green paintings of odd, lumpy boulders rising out of the paddyfields. The crew was the first to film a co-production in China, working with the China Film Bureau, which lends an invaluable authenticity to the look of the production, as the Chinese landscape is almost another character in the film. The story also takes a few gentle potshots at the British Imperial presence in China, as represented by Walter, who assumes that Western ways are best. This is a powerful, subtle and beautiful film.


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