The third film version of Somerset Maughm's 1925 novel--directed by John Curran--is ripe with stunning Chinese locales and a smart turn from Naomi Watts as Kitty Fane, the aging English socialite who must put herself in strange and turbulent surroundings before she finds her true self. A complex and beautiful international production, this adaptation benefits greatly from the lack of restrictions that inhibited its previous incarnations in 1925 (with Greta Garbo) and in 1957 (as THE SEVENTH SIN).
After pressure from her wealthy parents to settle down, Kitty marries mild-mannered bacteriologist Walter (Edward Norton), despite her lack of love for him. Shortly after their vows, he takes her to Shanghai, where she immediately has an affair with Charles Townsend (Liev Shrieber), an English Vice Consul. Walter becomes aware of Kitty's indiscretion and promptly whisks her away to the mountain village of Mei-tan-fu, where they befriend another English expat, the secretly decadent Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones, in an extremely likable performance). Walter begins working to hold an encroaching cholera epidemic at bay---leaving Kitty to ponder her role in the situation as death looms over the village like a specter.
A labor of love that took the better part of a decade for producer Norton and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, THE PAINTED VEIL is a large, complex, and visually sumptuous production that employed a primarily Chinese crew on its intense location shoots. Norton's passion for the material is on full display, as he turns in another solid performance. Watts, however, who portrayed another unfaithful wife in Curran's previous film WE DON'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (2004), is the heart of the film, all bee-stung lips and sweat on porcelain skin. Romantic, escapist entertainment in the best sense, THE PAINTED VEIL is yet more proof that there is an endless pool of silver screen potential in the classics of literature.