Movie Reviews

The Painted Veil

“As if a woman ever loved a man for his virtue,” Kittie (Naomi Watts) says to her mom in protest of a semi-arranged marriage to Dr. Fane (Edward Norton).

Watts’ ability to morph with seeming ease into this snide, immature female at the onset of the film is uncanny. And it’s a good thing because it’s upon this behavior and her maturation that the entire film is built.

Produced by and starring Watts and Norton, this expose of wealth, immaturity and how tragedy can hurl a soul into adulthood, pronto, was dreadfully underrated at the time of its release. And my sister and I still call it our little secret.

When it came out, it only showed at the indy house in NYC. Now that it’s on DVD, I do enjoy it as a lesser-known masterpiece but hope that one day the wider world comes to know it as a Van Gogh of sorts as well.

After watching it at least a dozen times, I can say that it’s flawless, and the director has made choices that render some scenes effortless in their grace, like dances. Perhaps it is the effortlessness of the scenes that caused me initially to take many for granted–even though I fell in love at first sight with this film.

The story opens with Kitty’s misery at being ignored inside of a hot, humid box carried by Chinese workers who are escorting she and her new husband, Dr. Fane, to a patch of Cholera epidemic in southern China. She’s steeping in selfish misery as those around her keep the wider world and those suffering just a few miles away in the fore-fronts of their minds. Dr. Fane is cold to her and we wonder why.

We are then zoomed back with her memories of meeting Dr. Fane at a dance. At his first sighting of her, we are romantically swept off our feet at his ardent pursuit. At the same time, we cringe at her selfishness as she tosses his heart aside like old meat.

Pressured by her parents and their impatience at supporting her a minute more, Kitty takes Dr. Fane’s hand in marriage, and once they make a newlywed move to Shanghai, she takes a lover as well, Charlie, played by Liev Schreiber.

Charlie is high society and her pride at their love is mocked as he turns his back on her to save face and keep his figureheads marriage in tact. She is about to leave for epidemic land and Dr. Fane, being no idiot, calls out her affair and gives her an ultimatum: get Charlie to marry you or come with me—anything else spells divorce.

She runs to Charlie who worms his way out as if he had done it a hundred times … instead of  just a dozen.

This is where the beginning of the film is revisited and taken forward. The couple sets up shop in the green, jutting hills and makes friends with another couple there—whose relationship is at first misunderstood as it seems just as much a white settler taking advantage of a Chinese prostitute. But we come to realize their love as real, just as Kitty realizes Dr. Fane’s intentions and what it would mean for her life to love him, too.

Her realization of adult priorities and her affection for Dr. Fane is catalyzed by encounters with nuns and orphans at a local, French Cathedral. They speak highly of Dr. Fane and she starts to see their point of view as well as the magnitude of disease in the area and how everyone around her is suffering, miserably. The nuns drop like flies to the epidemic, so Kitty lends a hand caring for the children.

One night thereabouts, after a few drinks and a lingering night of chat with their friends, Kitty and Dr. Fane make their way home, and thus begins one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever seen. But what built up to it, the entire film before it, must be registered for this cinematic moment to deliver its power. It is a master craft, this scene—one where silence and music and natural sound are juggled as well as looks, camera angles and swift movement. It is a dance of the most graceful proportions.

But good things sometimes come to an end … check it out.

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