Sunday, April 29, 2012

On "The Painted Veil" (2006)

There were two things I loved about seeing The Painted Veil one weekday afternoon in New York City. One was the film itself.  The other was the sense of community with a few other audience members.  This was an mid-afternoon showing at the local cineplex in my former neighborhood.  It wasn't a packed house but you knew that the folks present would be paying attention to the film.  This was Edward Norton and Naomi Watts acting a screenplay based on literature by W. Somerset Maugham and set in the 1920s.  Top critics praised this picture.  But it got meager studio promotion.  A half hour into it, some of us strangers glanced at each other in the audience and mouthed "This is really good!"  The Painted Veil  was one of the finest films of 2006 that hardly anyone saw.
It reminded you of why we went to the movies.  We were transported by this big screen production.  Stellar acting, an intelligent script and complex characters we could connect to.  The cinematography was lush, the original score was lovely and memorable and the other production values were also first-rate.  Had this film been released in the 1970s or '80s, it would've racked up half a dozen Oscar nominations.  At least.  Including Best Picture.  Instead, The Painted Veil was one of the best reviewed films of the year and totally snubbed in Oscar nominations.  It opens with a majestic panorama of verdant countryside.  A man and a woman, well-dressed and with matching luggage, appear to be sophisticated travelers.  They stand silent with their backs to each other, distance between them.  That visual is film literature for emotional tension between the characters.
They are unhappily married Brits in China.  Kitty came from an upper class family in which a daughter was pretty much like goods on a store shelf.  The parents wanted her to marry well and move out because father couldn't afford to keep taking care of her.  Walter, a reserved and shy bacteriologist from   the middle class, falls madly in love with cynical and blunt Kitty.  He sees something dear in her that she perhaps doesn't even see in herself.  He will do anything to make her happy.  You like Walter.  You can see the love in his eyes for Kitty.  That love isn't mutual but she enters into a marriage of convenience with him nonetheless.  Walter's acquaintance, Charlie, is more Kitty's type.  Handsome, sexy, assertive, butch, brawny and upper class.  He's married too but he and Kitty make time for some steamy afternoon delight.
Walter volunteers to go to China to help combat a cholera epidemic.  He finds out about the affair.  Knowing that his image-conscious Londoner wife would not want him to file for divorce and charge her with adultery, he manipulates things so that she must appear to be a good wife and accompany him to China.  This is a young woman who thinks buying and arranging flowers is a bother.  Kitty:  "To put all that effort into something that's just going to die."  Imagine being dropkicked from your life of privilege into a poverty-stricken and plague-ridden foreign location.  Walter will inconvenience Kitty as payback.  Walter Fane is now one of my favorite Edward Norton roles.  He shows that you should never judge a bookworm by its cover.  Many of us guys can relate to him.  No matter which league you're batting in -- straight or gay -- if you're the polite, somewhat shy and dependable fellow, you've been kicked to the curb romantically by someone solely because you didn't appear to be the "bad boy."  This has happened to be and, in time, I admit that the rejections did toughen my heart up a bit.  I was interested in a guy for quite some time a few years ago.  The interest wasn't mutual because he liked muscular, sexy, darkly handsome dudes.  He found one.  He moved in.  Then he discovered that the handsome sexy man was a physically abusive drinker.  He called me one evening in distress.  My initial urge was to say, "Oh, I see.  Now that you're in a crisis, I've suddenly become beautiful.  Well, too late.  Find another place to stay tonight."  I didn't though.  But that flash of spitefulness I felt in myself surprised me.  I saw some of myself in Walter.  I saw some of how I wanted to be.  Walter hardens into an assertive, masculine "bad boy" by simply holding self-absorbed Kitty to her marriage contract.
The Painted Veil is a tale of infection.  Walter battles a virus that has infected China.  The Chinese hate foreigners whom, they feel, have infected their land politically.  Charlie, played by the square-faced and solid Liev Schreiber, has infected Dr. Fane's marriage.
Kitty has much to learn.  She will get wise life lessons for a worldly nun at a French convent in China.  In any other year, this rich and inspired performance by Diana Rigg would have landed her in the Oscar category for Best Supporting Actress.  Yes, the same Diana Rigg who was so marvelous as sleek  crimefighter Emma Peel on the classic 1960s British import TV series, The Avengers.
Rigg as Mother Superior comments to Kitty:  "When love and duty are one, grace is within you."  Will Kitty leave China in a state of grace?  That's a big question.  To me, this film is one of those remakes that's better than the original.  The previous version was a property powerful Hollywood studio MGM tailored for one of its top stars, screen legend Greta Garbo, in 1934. George Brent played the lover.
Herbert Marshall co-starred as Dr. Fane.  Marshall must've been Old Hollywood's go-to guy for W. Somerset Maugham screen adaptations.  He did MGM's The Painted Veil. 
He also did 1929's The Letter with Jeanne Eagels, the 1940 William Wyler remake of The Letter with Bette Davis, The Moon and Sixpence in 1942 and 20th Century Fox's Oscar-winning 1946 production of The Razor's Edge starring Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney and Anne Baxter.  Oscar-nominated actor Edward Norton further proved his versatility as Dr. Fane in his remake of The Painted Veil.  He was star and producer.  Norton isn't a celebrity regularly highlighted in entertainment news.  We don't know a lot about his private life. We do know his acting talent is a knock-out.   There's Fight Club.  There's his frightening and brilliant turn as the skinhead racist in American History X.  He did a Bobby Van-like musical comedy turn in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You.  He was outstanding as the delusional Southern California modern-day cowboy outsider in Down in the Valley.  Norton was Oscar-nomination worthy as Dr. Fane.  The same goes for Naomi Watts as the complicated Kitty.  Director John Curran gave us the kind of film that moviegoers got from Fred Zinnemann, William Wyler and David Lean decades ago.  I loved seeing it on a big screen.  I loved how it brought an appreciative audience together, turning strangers into a community for a couple of hours.  That's the power of movies.

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