Published January 11, 2007
Based on a 1925 novel by Somerset Maugham, “The Painted Veil” tells the story of Kitty and Walter Fane, a young British couple who are forced to learn about themselves and each other during a cholera epidemic in China.
The film opens as the couple is dropped off in a remote location in China. The scenery is overwhelming, with mountains looming in the background and steam rising from the lush fields that surround them. Walter and Kitty, dressed in formal European clothing, are clearly at a great distance from anything familiar. This distance is mirrored in the couple’s relationship—estranged, they barely speak to one another as they wait for their transport. Tension and despair are amplified by their remote situation.
Flashbacks tell the story of how they got to that point. As the couple travel across the Chinese mainland, we see how they met back in London and how Kitty was persuaded to marry Walter even though she barely knew and did not love him. Walter’s work as a scientist was in Shanghai, and as a bored housewife, Kitty had an affair with a handsome diplomat. Enraged, Walter took an assignment in a remote, cholera-ravaged village and forced his wife to accompany him—a decision that places them in extreme danger, both from the disease and from the political unrest that plagues the region. As one character puts it, “If the cholera doesn’t get us, the nationalists might.”
Once they arrive at their destination, the situation is bleak. They move into a ramshackle bungalow that was once inhabited by missionaries who succumbed to the disease. Their only neighbor is a friendly but dissolute British official, Waddington, affectingly portrayed by Toby Jones. Danger lurks everywhere for Kitty, and director John Curran does a wonderful job of portraying her discomfort and the alien nature of the situation she finds herself in, as her new home, the surrounding countryside, and the village are all filled with unfamiliar faces with whom she has no way of communicating. Haunting scenes of the disease and its victims pop up everywhere she turns.
Neither Kitty nor Walter is a particularly likeable character, especially at the beginning of this film, but as portrayed by Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, both are eminently sympathetic. The rationale for their actions is understandable, as both must cope with unhappy circumstances to the best of their limited abilities.
As the couple spend time in the village, each is forced to go beyond the limited expectations that have been placed upon them by society. In short, they blossom, especially through their work in the infirmary and orphanage run by a group of nuns led by the pragmatic Mother Superior (Diana Rigg). Their relationship with each other also transforms from a childish, self-destructive hatred to more of a realistic acceptance of the other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Their journey is truly a compelling character study of people caught in extraordinary circumstances yet behaving in completely human ways. Taking on responsibility and caring for others forces Walter and Kitty to grow up in a way they might never have done in London or Shanghai society.
The film also touches on some political questions of colonialization. Chinese nationalists are growing tired of the presence of “foreign devils” and are agitating for autonomous control of their nation. Walter at first believes he is apart from the political fray because he is a doctor who only wants to help discover and control the cause of the epidemic. He gradually learns, however, that his position as a British man of authority means he is involved whether he wants to be or not. His relationship with the military leader of the village, Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), develops into one of mutual respect and friendship. One of the most thought-provoking moments of the film comes when Yu explains to the doctor that although the British have brought some improvements to the region, he wishes that the Chinese could be included as partners in the process of developing their own country.
Reinforced by stunning scenery and evocative set design, the film has a sort of epic sweep that is always grounded by the small details of the characters’ actions. “The Painted Veil” is at once a moving costume drama and a thought-provoking look at how people see each other, and themselves, and how their perceptions change and grow as they mature.