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Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham and set in the early twentieth century, The Painted Veil tells the tale of timid bacteriologist Walter Fane (Edward Norton) and socialite Kitty (Naomi Watts) who marries Walter, believing that her father is about to stop her financial support. His job takes them to Shanghai, where Kitty engages in an affair with the charismatic cad Charlie Townsend (Live Schreiber). When he finds out about his wife’s indiscretions, Walter refuses to file for divorce, instead coercing his wife to join him on a mission to aid a cholera epidemic in rural China.

Painted Veil, The
It’s hardly the most romantic setup for a love story, is it? What sets The Painted Veil apart from the usual they-hate-each-other they-love-each-other storyline is that the performances of the central characters are very convincing and I really bought into their relationship. From the outset, relations between Walter and Kitty are frosty at best. Slowly but surely they begin to warm to each other but their love grows in small increments, which is testament to the complexity of the source material.

I had the pleasure of attending an Edward Norton press day a while back (editorial coming soon), which included a screening of The Painted Veil. Soon after, I bought my girlfriend (now fiancée, I’m pleased to announce) a copy of the original novel because I thought it would be right up her street. I was right, so I was looking forward to us watching the movie together. However, unbeknownst to me, the movie version of The Painted Veil is quite different in its focus and resolution so Lizzie didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did. ‘The film wasn’t as good as the book’ syndrome strikes again I guess. I’m told that while the film focuses mainly on Walter (no doubt due to Edward Norton’s top billing), the novel has Kitty as the main protagonist and their relationship doesn’t have the same resolution. I didn’t have any preconceptions of The Painted Veil before I saw it, which is probably why I appreciated it for the film it is and I will no doubt encourage disagreement from fans of the novel with this gushing review.

Painted Veil, The
Having played mostly contemporary roles in the past, Edward Norton follows up The Illusionist with his second period role in a row, but his performance is very different to Eisenheim the magician. As Walter, he tones down the bravado to give a mannered, nervous performance. Naomi Watts, on the other hand, is confident as the shallow Kitty Fane. What helps her change her ways is the guidance of the Mother Superior from the orphanage in the cholera-ridden village. Diana Rigg excels in this role, drawing out Walter and Kitty’s feelings for each other, especially in the scene where she compares her relationship with God to that of an old couple who barely speak to each other.

The makers of The Painted Veil were allowed the rare permission to film in China. This led to difficulties when it came to including scenes that showed the Chinese authorities in a bad light and a small number of moments are said to be missing because of this arrangement. On the plus side, The Painted Veil makes incredible use of the Chinese landscape, with glorious shots that exist in no other Hollywood movie. They may have complained about some of the content, but the Chinese government should be happy with the end result because this film can only be good for their tourist industry.

Painted Veil, The
All too often, it’s easy to have one scene or one line that flicks the hate/love switch and we’re expected to buy into the idea of two characters that hated each other living happily ever after. This is not the case with The Painted Veil, which is a beautiful film with strong performances that slowly builds towards an emotional climax. It has a timeless feeling and while it may have been generally overlooked upon its release, it really deserves to be considered a modern classic.


The Painted Veil is a colourful film, with sepia tones during the London and Shanghai scenes (although not as obvious as The Illusionist), and harsher, brighter shades when the action moves to China. The backgrounds in China have less detail, but this is due to fine representation of the humid atmosphere that makes the characters' suffering in the heat all the more convincing. Shots of the landscape contain large areas of colour but no interference compression or edge enhancement is obvious. Unfortunately the quality of dark scenes isn't up to the same standard, with areas of dark colour showing signs of compression, which you may notice in the final screenshot of this review.

Painted Veil, The


Alexandre Desplat’s haunting score would not be out of place in a scary movie but here it neatly complements the awkward relationship between the two main characters. The song that plays during the journey back from China, ‘A La Claire Fontaine’ by the choir of the Beijing Takah, is the emotional climax of The Painted Veil and is another stand-out moment in an excellent soundtrack. The quality of the audio suffers from no obvious interference and the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is the best way to appreciate the score, which is impressive without overpowering the dialogue.


Just a trailer, I’m afraid. I’d love to have a commentary from Norton or Curran and there must be enough behind-the-scenes footage to piece together an interesting documentary about the production about the first major Hollywood movie in China.

Painted Veil, The


I enjoyed every moment of The Painted Veil from beginning to end. You may or may not agree with me, especially if you have read the original novel but on its own, it is a beautiful modern film with a classic romantic tone. The DVD itself is a bit of a let-down and I can only hope a special edition is in the works.