Based on a 1925 novel by W Somerset Maugham that took its title from a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley (stay awake at the back), The Painted Veil bears all the hallmarks of a highbrow literary adaptation of the Merchant Ivory school. The opening tableau of junks emerging out of the mist in Shanghai Harbour might as well have been lifted wholesale from The White Countess, that venerable outfit’s spectacularly tedious 2005 swansong. Appearances can be deceptive, though, and beneath the fusty trappings and exotic locations that automatically pigeonhole John Curran’s flick as an arthouse delectation lies a hotbed of illicit passion, bitter enmity and doomed amour, set against a backdrop of political unrest and deadly plague.
That it all takes a little while to get going is the result of a lengthy, Shanghai-based prologue that establishes the strained relationship between Watts’ shallow toff Kitty and Edward Norton’s Walter Fane, the stuffy bacteriologist she marries to escape her interfering family. The catalyst for that tension is Kitty’s casual adultery with diplomat Liev Schrieber, an affair that makes a vindictive Walter accept a near-suicidal posting in a remote Chinese territory ravaged by cholera. But once they get to this isolated rural setting the story proper begins, the couple’s mutual hostility gradually melting into a grudging respect and re-awakened affection that takes both them – and us – by surprise.
A love story in reverse, Watts’ growing regard for Norton’s prissy boffin reflects our own appreciation of his better qualities. The real challenge, though, is turning flighty, flirty Kitty into a woman worthy of Walter – one that Watts meets with a delicate, textured performance that makes her Damascan conversion from vacuous snob to virtuous wife feel entirely natural and authentic. The same can’t be said of Diana Rigg’s turn as a careworn nun whose spiritual instruction only just stops short of ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’. Toby Jones, though, could hardly be better cast as a Brit official with a taste for opium and Oriental women.
The Painted Veil’s chief appeal is its old-school virtue of a good yarn well told. If you approach the film from that perspective, you’ll be rewarded with a well-mounted exercise in heritage cinema with an unexpectedly powerful emotional tug.