Judge Katie Herrell finds that sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between her comfy chair and the kitchen for a can of soda.
Our review of The Painted Veil (1934), published July 5th, 2013, is also available.
"Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people."
Beautiful scenery. And beautiful scenery.
Facts of the Case
Kitty (Naomi Watts, King Kong) is the outspoken, unmarried short-haired woman the early 20th Century was so afraid of. She married Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton, Rounders), a bacteriologist, simply to appease her nagging mother. Together they move to Shanghai (from England), where the impetuous Kitty tires of Walter's boring mad-scientist ways and begins an affair with Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate (2004)), a government employee. Wise to his cheating wife, Walter proposes a quest to the heart of China's cholera epidemic—or a shameful, public divorce.
On paper, the premise for The Painted Veil is fascinating. Basically, Walter devises one of two death sentences for his unfaithful wife: the first a physical death, the almost guaranteed result of taking a frail, un-inoculated young lady on an arduous journey into the throes of a cholera epidemic, and the second, a public death by humiliation that would befall Kitty if her husband were to publicly divorce her citing her infidelity as the reason. The first option is cruel and sadistic, and likely the grounds for criminal charges today. But it is also intriguing, as the scheme is just as likely to kill Walter as Kitty, and it is so much more sinister than a "simple" murder.
However, the pace of The Painted Veil is so languid, and the tension and anger so disguised that the movie does not capitalize on the material. Naomi Watts plays an attuned Kitty—she is subtly opinionated and captures her boredom perfectly. However, the character arises as rather one-dimensional, putzing about in pale sheath dresses and rather distractedly heeding her whims. The character is unfocused and uninspired and that reflects poorly onscreen.
And how I long for the Edward Norton of American History X, Fight Club and Spike Lee's 25th Hour. In those films, Norton is ready to explode, all muscles and badness, seething energy, disgust, and sarcasm. In those films Norton spitting on the ground could command a scene, but in his more recent movies, namely The Illusionist and The Painted Veil, Norton wouldn't spit on the ground. Instead he'd discreetly pull out a hankie to demurely abandon his excess. The Painted Veil is ripe for an older version of Norton with its lying, cheating, and death, but this Norton is too stiff-lipped, too ramrod straight. He is a picture of the times, and it is not suiting to him, nor does it allow the storyline the shock and power it deserves. Perhaps The Incredible Hulk will be Norton's return to a powerful character.
The most interesting moments in the movie come from two minor characters. The odd-looking Waddington (Toby Jones, Mrs. Henderson Presents) speaks of his love for a young Chinese woman with none of the skeeviness his face portrays. He pulls off great passion and belief in his duties without seeming righteous or uptight. He is constantly disheveled-looking, red-faced, and sweating, which fits the climate (both physically and emotionally) and is a nice contrast to the constant paleness of Norton and Watts.
Another interesting moment is when Mother Superior (Diana Rigg, The Avengers), the woman in charge of the cholera-ridden village's orphanage, speaks candidly of her relationship to God. Speaking in metaphors, Mother Superior speaks of herself as a young woman, so passionate about God that she married him impulsively and has now settled into an agree-to-disagree lifelong marriage with him. In this movie, which is about love more than anything, the most candid look at life and marriage comes from a celibate nun.
The saving grace of this movie is the scenery and the costuming. Never before have I wanted a parasol so much or to see a man in a real-live, three-piece linen suit. Kitty's subtle flapper wardrobe looks very comfortable and finely constructed. During the couple's many travels, there are numerous beautiful shots of far-off mountains shrouded in fog. With the sun nestled between the peaks, the shots of rural China are a welcome departure from the dusty village slowly being killed by cholera.
The soundtrack was also scenic in its own way, traveling the range of emotions alongside the characters. Alexandre Desplat won the 2007 Golden Globe for Best Original Score in a Motion Picture for his work on the movie, and I would like to hear this classical composition on its own. At times, the scenery and story overwhelmed the music, however, and it blended unheard into the background.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Understandably Norton is looking to expand his acting repertoire. He manages a foreign accent quite believably and he is intelligent, calculating, and controlled, as I'd imagine of many scientists. Although the movie allows quite a bit of tension to bubble under the surface, it also avoids gratuitously portraying the ravages of cholera. There are hacking coughs and seeping black spots, but the disease is not exploited in this film.
If you are looking for a period piece with beautiful scenery, check out The Painted Veil. If you are in the mood for a truly impassioned film about love and betrayal, though, check out the 2005 award-winning film The Constant Gardener instead.
Guilty. Sometimes that distance is too far to cross in just 125 minutes.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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