The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham’s novel about a dysfunctional British couple who travel to rural China in the early part of the 20th century has been brought to the screen twice before. Greta Garbo’s 1934 version used the title but little else from the book, while a 1957 take on the story, titled The Seventh Sin, skirted around some of the more unsavory aspects of the story. The new version, starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts has the old-fashioned epic old-fashioned feel of its predecessors, but is far more frank than either of the first two films could ever be.
Norton and Watts play Walter and Kitty Fane, an unhappily married couple who stay together out of habit rather than love. He is an unaffectionate biologist who is married to his work, she a shallow party girl who craves attention. When she has an affair with one of her husband’s colleagues Walter explodes, showing real passion for the first time in their marriage. He cruelly offers her an ultimatum: she can either follow him to a cholera ravaged village in rural China where he will study the disease or suffer the indignity and ensuing scandal of being sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery.
She chooses the former and while in the dangerous rural village, away from everything and everyone they know, the couple discovers forgiveness and is able to reconnect.
The film was shot on location in Mainland China and looks spectacular and both Norton and Watts hand in good performances that really get under the skin of a relationship that is in real trouble. The movie is set in post Victorian times and these two actors adhere to the etiquette of the day, but also show the passion that boils just beneath their mannered facades. The achieve something remarkable—they make an eighty year old story set nearly a century ago feel up-to-date and modern.