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KFF: The Painted Veil

The Kilgore Film Festival’s second movie, The Painted Veil, is actually a remake of a 1934 Greta Garbo film with the same title (both based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham). I haven’t seen the original, so this may not be quite fair, but I imagine it is an exceedingly melodramatic and stagy production filmed on what is obviously a back-lot (I’m not really a Garbo fan). The plot, however, is the same.

In the 1920s, Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) falls in love with spoiled socialite Kitty (Naomi Watts). She doesn’t love him and he knows it, but he convinces her to marry him nonetheless and takes her to China where he works as a civil servant. Before long, feeling bored and neglected, Kitty begins an affair with a charismatic diplomat (Liev Schrieber). But Walter is not as oblivious as she thinks. He is deeply wounded by her unfaithfulness, but too proud to show it.

Walter, now cold and distant, volunteers to take charge of the battle against a raging cholera epidemic deep in the Chinese interior and manipulates Kitty into accompanying him. Setting out together, they seek to hurt each other as much as possible until one of them is killed, either by the cholera or by increasingly anti-British Chinese nationalists.

Of course, it is only a matter of time before sheer boredom drives Kitty outside her own selfish concerns and into the middle of the growing crisis. For the first time in her life, she is paying attention to others, but Walter is doing his best not to notice. Is relational healing even possible between two stubborn people who had no common ground to begin with?

The Painted Veil, like the magnificent films of David Lean, has an intimate relationship with its landscapes. The scenery in China is nothing short of breathtakingly gorgeous, and it is used to full effect here. The characters seem so small amidst the wide-open splendor of this foreign countryside. We do not know whether Walter and Kitty’s marriage is salvageable at this point, but we sense that the beauty of this place certainly won’t hurt their chances.

Kitty develops an interesting relationship with the Mother Superior in charge of the French nuns who run the orphanage and hospital. The Mother Superior has seen a lot in her life, and she probably suspects more about Walter and Kitty than she is letting on. In a conversation she and Kitty have late in the film, the Mother Superior describes her journey of faith. She began as an impassioned teenager, eager to commit her life to serving God, but now, decades later, she finds herself simply going through the motions.

She describes her relationship with God by comparing it to a dutiful wife who continues to endure her husband because they have been married for so long. The spark is gone, but she toils on out of a sense of commitment. But, she wisely notes, this is not a healthy state for a relationship. It is only “when love and duty are one,” she says, that “grace is within you.” Days later, I am still turning those words over in my mind.

The Painted Veil is lovingly shot and the performances of the lead characters are powerful. The historical backdrop provides a fascinating setting, but it is ultimately developed very little. Indeed, it is largely superfluous to the larger concerns of the story’s central relationship. This couple’s struggle is both universal and timeless, and it is handled very sensitively and admirably here. It acknowledges (as so few stories seem to) the pain and the damage that adultery causes, but offers hope for redemption as well.

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~ by Jared on April 23, 2007.

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