When things are at their worst, I find something always happens.
–Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1915)
“Men are incalculable,” says Kitty (Naomi Watts), looking at her husband. “I thought you were just like anybody else, but now I feel I don’t know anything about you.” She comes to her revelation late in The Painted Veil, the latest screen translation of Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel. She comes to it rather too late, actually. But for Kitty, and for the movie, this self-understanding is momentous: suddenly, the couple’s vain and painful conflicts are cast into a broader perspective.
The fact that such perspective takes so long to reach helps to set the deliberate pace of The Painted Veil. Kitty and her husband, a dedicated bacteriologist named Walter (Edward Norton) remain mostly blind to one another’s attractions throughout the film, using one another to achieve their own ends. For Kitty, he’s a means to escape the oppressive, utterly depressing expectations of her family — in particular her mother (Maggie Steed), who dotes on Kitty’s sister while fully expecting the spoiled Kitty to dwindle into fully deserved spinsterhood. “The idea that a young woman should marry any Tom, Dick or Harry regardless of whether she loves him is simply prehistoric,” she complains, to no avail. And so, when Walter puts to her his awkward proposal, she watches him, not quite patient, her expression set somewhere between vacant and inquisitive. “I’ll do anything in my power to make you happy,” he promises.
Ah well. Kitty’s decision takes her about as far from her mother as she could have imagined, to Shanghai. Here she learns that Walter is a dedicated researcher and rather poor companion. “I’ve got used to not speaking unless I have something to say,” he asserts as if it’s a measure of his moral worth, while Kitty grows more bored by the minute. Her solution — an affair with the British vice consul Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber) — will only make her lonelier, though she hardly anticipates it. Following several not-very-steamy assignations (Charles is the dreariest of lovers, cheating on his wife because he can), Kitty is discovered and faces Walter’s wrath.
It is prodigious and ceaseless. Indeed, his punishment is close to ingenious. Insisting that she accompany him to a rural outpost where he means to battle cholera, Walter offers Kitty the option of social oblivion (no divorce, only humiliation) or what sounds to her like certain, grisly death. She chooses the latter. “I despise myself for allowing myself to love you once,” Walter tells her, many long months later. She’s startled, of course, to hear that he ever loved her, or thought he did, as she’s never felt “that way” about him.
Walter’s love is complicated, however. Like Kitty, he’s a selfish, angry individual, the sort of British subject who sees himself reflected in every aspect of his world. Projecting onto Kitty his own needs and desires, he goes on to do the same with his work. You might see this as the movie’s trouble as well, as it turns “China” into a familiar sort of “exotic” backdrop for white folks’ troubles.
One of the first images of Walter and Kitty in this “China” has them seated apart, gazing in opposite directions. As they wait to be fetched by their local transport, she sits beneath a parasol, he reads, the aching distance between them indicated by the expanse of lush, vaguely yellow waterscape behind them. In Shanghai, Charles’ earnest discussion of how to deal with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist movement is interrupted by Kitty’s urgent demand that he agree to leave his wife and marry her. The moment — and her inevitable disappointment — underlines Kitty’s inability to see beyond herself, and so the film’s use of the “exotic locale” convention is turned into characterization: Kitty’s willful ignorance shapes the movie’s visual design, its relegation of Chinese characters to background.
Still, the sheer scope of that background is daunting, especially as detailed by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh. In the village of Mei-tan-fu, Kitty suffers heat, loneliness, and a peculiarly petulant form of self-destruction (during one angry dinner, she and Walter compete over who will contract cholera, each chomping down on bites of salad — as opposed to cooked and presumably “safe” food — with vehemence). She also meets Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones), who embraces the locals in the usual ways: when Kitty asks what his much younger Manchu lover (Yu Lin) sees in him, he translates the girl’s answer, “She says I’m a good man.” Given Kitty’s conditioned tendency to see no good in men, the observation appears to her naïve and maybe sweet. But it also speaks to British arrogance and reductiveness in China, feeling resentful of and vaguely obligated to impoverished local populations. Most often, the Chinese appear as nameless, suffering victims (cholera is a devastating, dehydrating ordeal), with only a couple of visible individuals: an indignant Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) and Kitty’s assigned bodyguard, Sung Ching (Li Feng), a fumbling, dedicated young man with a gun with whom she is obnoxiously impatient… until she is not.
Kitty’s shifting perspective has less to do with local politics (the film includes brief references to historical events, such as the 1925 British police massacre of Chinese demonstrators) than with her own emerging compassion. Moved to see her “incalculable” husband anew — by his emotional as well as profoundly physical efforts to reduce infection rates and treat patients — Kitty is also inspired by the Mother Superior of an order of French nuns (Diana Rigg, of all people), keeping and schooling orphans. Walter predictably reciprocates when he observes Kitty’s newfound engagement with nuns’ work: she seems actually to thrive among the children, predictably adoring their white lady caretaker.
But for all the familiarity of the white couple’s romance (the film is the third based on Maugham’s novel, following 1934’s Garbo vehicle and 1957’s The Seventh Sin, with Eleanor Parker), John Curran’s version does bring a certain self-awareness to precisely that problem. The Brits never quite comprehend their surroundings, their obliviousness a function of their implacable privilege, their eventual tragedy an object lesson for viewers. Kitty’s redemption from small-mindedness is a small story, but the movie makes it look ravishing. Reportedly a longtime passion for Norton, one of four producers, The Painted Veil uses its narrative limits to make its political case, that privilege breeds ignorance.