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Movie Review

The Painted Veil

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content

Reviewed by: Kenneth R. Morefield

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Drama, Romance, Adaptation of novel, Remake
2 hr. 5 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
January 19, 2007
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Warner Independent Pictures

What is true love and how do you know when you have found it? Answer

What does the Bible say about adultery? Answer

How can I deal with temptations? Answer

Should I save sex for marriage? Answer

What are the consequences of sexual immorality? Answer

Sex, Love and Relationships
Learn how to make your love the best it can be. Christian answers to questions about sex, marriage, sexual addictions, and more. Valuable resources for Christian couples, singles and pastors.
Featuring: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Sally Hawkins, Toby Jones
Director: John Curran
Producer: Mark R. Gordon, Bob Yari, Robert F. Katz
Distributor: Warner Independent Pictures

“Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people”

This film is based on a novel by Somerset Maugham.

The “Painted Veil” is a film that is in love with the idea of love. It is in such a hurry to get to its second act—in which the cuckolded Walter Fane takes his unfaithful wife into the heart of a cholera epidemic so that they can both discover too late that they actually do love rather than hate one another—that we are no more certain why Kitty was unfaithful than we are why Walter wanted to marry her in the first place. It turns out some good, old-fashioned hardship is the most effective form of couple’s therapy and that indifference is a greater sin against the idol of love than is adultery.

The biggest surprise in “The Painted Veil”—a film with precious few of them—may come in the final credits, where it is revealed that the film was shot on sound stages in Shanghai and on location in China. The film’s insistent, almost distracting, tight framing suggests soundstages to the attentive viewer; vistas were mostly used for picturesque establishing shots prior to cutting to somewhat unimaginatively shot interior or closely cropped exterior scene. So the revelation of the location shooting was a bit of a disappointment, indicating a lost opportunity to add a desperately needed sense of place to what is, after all is said and done, a rather small, domestic melodrama.

That is unless, of course, one has read the book by W. Somerset Maugham on which the film is based, in which case the film’s biggest surprise may come in the opening credits when the very American Edward Norton and the very modern Naomi Watts are introduced as the 1920s British couple of Walter and Kitty Fane.

Both are fine actors who have done superior work in other venues, but Norton especially is hampered by a character that is at odds with his iconic personality and a script that’s so ploddingly expository that there is nothing left for him to convey. In the early scenes, his reticence comes across more as modern, coy flirtation (think George Clooney) than as from someone who is truly emotionally stunted (think Henry Wilcox in “Howards End”).

An example of the latter problem would be a scene about midway through the film in which Kitty and Walter fight and Kitty leaves the room. The camera stays on Walter too long, removing any mystery as to whether he is genuinely indifferent to his wife or merely feigning (hmm, like his name) that emotion to hide his hurt. Eventually, Walter cocks his head towards the door to indicate he is listening and, for viewers who still haven’t grasped the point, walks to the door and reaches to open it only to bring himself up short.

Watts fares better than Norton, though she is saddled with several long speeches to underline the conflicts that would make more sense were she supposed to be a modern character raised to be introspective rather than a superficial, immature and bored newlywed. She is also a bit too physically imposing to fit as a character about whom we are repeatedly told is small and fragile.

Where a stronger, smarter film that trusted its audience would have let the actors convey some conflict or allowed for more ambiguity in the middle scenes, “The Painted Veil” goes out of its way to explain itself at every step. Between all that expository dialogue and the film telegraphing the emotional movement of the characters three scenes in advance, there simply isn’t much dramatic tension. When the couple finally reconnects, it feels more inevitable than surprising.

None of this means the film is particularly bad. It is drearily competent, enough so that should viewers have a predisposition to emotionally connect with the material, they may not find the lack of any deep insight or depth a problem. By the end, we’ve learned loving your spouse is better than not and that greater happiness may be found in faithfulness than in carnal pleasures.

The film does retain vestiges of some of Maugham’s acerbic, post-World War I cynicism, perhaps best seen in a speech given by the mother superior of the convent where Kitty volunteers who likens her own relationship to God to that of an elderly married couple who have grown indifferent to one another. Walter also makes one speech impugning the nuns’ motivations for doing missionary work, though this is presented in the film as coming from a place of personal anger or bitterness and not offered as a serious critique of the church or an actual conflict of worldviews between the married couple.

If I come across as suspicious towards the film’s championing of love, it may be because Kitty’s and Walter’s reconciliation appears to me to be based more on emotional penance and physical loneliness than it is on actual forgiveness or growing spiritual unity, so it is hard for me to see the eventual love the film champions as being substantially different from the initial infatuation and resignation that led to the marriage in the first place. I believe that Walter’s and Kitty’s newfound love is real because the film tells me so, but the love at the end of the film is the amorphous, fuzzy sort of emotional love that people “fall” into rather than choose, and it thus comes across as more accidental than heroic or redemptive.

The “Painted Veil” is rated PG-13 for partial nudity and some disturbing images of death and illness.

My Grade B-

Violence: Mild / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: Mild

Viewer Comments
Neutral—Hollywood likes to romanticized everything, and THE PAINTED VEIL is no exception. It is about an adulterous wife who come to love her husband a bit too late. You see, Kitty Garstin (Watts) is a pretty and shallow young well-to-do Londoner, who married Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) just so she can escape her demanding family after a dance the night before. Since Dr. Fane is a bacteriologist whose work is in China, so the married couple are off to the deadly exotic east. While there, Kitty was introduced to British diplomat Charles Townsend (Schreiber), a real womanizer, so they were having sizzling affairs to which Dr. Fane knew all along. He gave her an ultimatum to go with him into darker territory of China or he’ll divorced her for adultery. She adamantly pursued Charles to be only rejected, followed her husband and there, she’ll discover the man, her husband, a new person, whom she have not realized after all these times. She warms up to him to only discover just how epidemic cholera is. In the midst of chaos, she found to be with child and does not know who the father is. How romantic?

I do like the redemptive story about saving a marriage, but somehow the film lacks the zeitgeist. I don’t know if it is not grand enough or epic enough or something that is missing making this a missed mark target. It is gorgeous to look at, it is just not enough pizzazz. Something is lost in translation from book to film.
My Ratings: Average / 3½
—Mang Yang, age 35
Positive—I am surprised by your reviewer’s less than enthusiastic opinion of this movie. In an era where movies which exhort immoral conduct are the preferred fare, a movie that has some very noble and rather Christian messages is a welcome change. The script sustained the story line adequately. I will have to read the original work to see where it strayed, if at all. Adultery is portrayed by the thematic material in this film as catastrophic, and love and devotion are presented as the essence of the marriage contract, to be fulfilled humbly. I think the evolution of the relationship between Kitty and Walter Fane is well-defined and well-acted. The color cinematography was splendid—maybe the best I have seen in a long long time. The imagery was crisp, sunny scenes were actually sunny, and not cloudy (as so much cinematic filming is done), and the detail to history and costumes was fascinating. The movie is a little slow, but it has a great deal of material to cover and it does it well. I walked out very satisfied and recommend this to Christian viewers, despite the few scenes of explicit adultery.
My Ratings: Average / 4½
Halyna Barannik, age 60
Positive—…This was the best made film I have seen this year, stunningly photographed and lovingly directed at a leisurely pace, which suited the story and the period. Really good performances from Norton and Watts, with Watts showing what a good actress she can be when freed from her Fay Wray impressions in the vastly over-rated King Kong. I haven’t read the book, but followed the story with no problems. The story had a very real moral, that of finding yourself helping other people rather than living selfishly. While seen only from a worldly perspective in the film, this is nevertheless a Christian value. With acting of a high standard throughout and stunning locations, this was an excellent cinematic experience.
My Ratings: Average / 4½
—David A Littlewood, age 59
Positive—…my favorite romantic film ever! It is obvious that Walter married Kitty hoping she would somehow change and become unselfish and spoiled. Kitty simply got married to get away from home. As for Walter, I do believe that he was both angry and struggling with still having feelings for his wife after she had been unfaithful to him. This was especially noticable when he ran to find her fearing for her safety which occured before they reconciled.The marriage is restored when Walter sees that Kitty has become the woman he had hoped she would be in the scene where she is playing the piano for the orphans and Kitty observes her husband and sees his kind acts. She falls in love with the virtues of her husband. Beautiful! As for the moment of passion when they reconciled, that was much needed! They showed a physical attraction toward one another which was lacking on Kitty’s part throughout the beginning of the film. Beautiful movie! For someone who never watches TV and only rents, it made it quite a Blockbuster Night!
My Ratings: Better than Average / 5
—Gloria Board, age 34
Comments from young people
Positive—“The Painted Veil” was a truly beautiful film. It depicts historic events with great accuracy, and the sceneries in the film were breathtaking. As the film progresses, one learns to see life though both Kitty’s and her husband’s eyes. This is important because it shows that both made mistakes, but yet learned to love each other even more after seeing each other’s flaws. Also, for me personally it was refreshing to see accurate chinese in a Hollywood film, for I live in China and speak chinese, and it was good to see a film in which the Chinese are portrayed as kind people who yes, did not at first understand the help Dr. Fane was giving them, but nevertheless were thankful for him in the end. The highlight in the movie for me was in the end, when Kitty blows off Mr. Townsend. That shows that she truly DID learn to love her husband and did not wish to continue the affair she’d had with him before, for she had learned from her mistakes. This movie is definitely worth seeing, though not for anyone under 13.
My Ratings: Better than Average / 4
—Dorothy, age 17