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Complexity of Relationships the Focus in Painted Veil

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2007 11 May
Complexity of Relationships the Focus in <i>Painted Veil</i>

DVD Release Date: May 8, 2007
Theatrical Release Date: December 20, 2006 (limited) 
Rating: PG-13 (for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 125 min.
Director: John Curran
Actors: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg

Can love grow where none has been planted?  This is the question asked by director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore) in this excellent film starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber.

During a trip home from China, the awkward British bacteriologist Walter Fane (Norton) spots London socialite Kitty (Watts) and immediately asks for her hand in marriage.  Bemused, Kitty refuses then accepts in order to escape a dysfunctional home.  It’s 1925 and evidence of British colonialism abounds in Shanghai—in the decadent lifestyles and in the general unrest of the populace.  Disdainful of the pretentiousness and unable to coax her stoic, unresponsive husband from his books, Kitty is bored and lonely.  It’s therefore no surprise when the smarmy and very married Vice Consul (Watts' real-life boyfriend, Schreiber), seduces her. 

Walter learns of the affair and issues Kitty an ultimatum.  He will either divorce her for adultery, turning her into a pariah, or she will accompany him to the tiny village of Mei-tan-fu, where everyone is dying of cholera.  Shocked, Kitty is forced to follow her husband to their new home, an abandoned shack.

Walter is determined to make Kitty suffer, so he deserts his wife during the day and ignores her at night.  Kitty’s only friend is a British officer named Waddington (Toby Jones), who spends his days doing drugs and getting drunk with his young Chinese girlfriend.  Miles from the village, where people continue to die, Kitty soon realizes that Walter has condemned them both to a slow death—if not from cholera, then surely from boredom. 

Waddington recognizes how unhappy Kitty is.  He also reveals what a womanizer the Vice Consul was, crushing any fantasies Kitty might have had about reuniting with her ex-lover.  Desperate, Kitty ventures into town, where she discovers that her husband is tremendously respected—although he is also reviled as an “Imperialist.”  But, as Kitty says, “What woman ever loved a man for his virtue?”  It’s tenderness this young woman needs, and Walter offers none.

After Kitty meets the mother superior of an orphanage, she volunteers and begins to find a purpose.  But as the cholera spreads and the violence looms, Kitty and Walter realize that unless they find forgiveness they will both be destroyed.

The Painted Veil is the third remake of a 1920 story by W. Somerset Maugham.  With outstanding performances all around, a strong script and the lush, evocative cinematography of on-location China, this film really shines.  Norton, as always, understands and portrays his character perfectly, showing us just how emotionally-deficit a man can be, even as he longs for love.  Schreiber is debonair and deceptively charming, and Jones manages to make his oddball character both admirable and creepy.  It’s Watts who steals this show, however, showing us that she has greater talents than anything she might do in the palm of an oversized ape.

Shot in a remote part of the Guangxi Province, The Painted Veil is one of those visual and cinematic masterpieces that we rarely see today.  It’s uncomfortable, but it conveys how complex relationships—and emotions—truly are.  Far removed from the myth-laden, sexually-charged promises of “true love,” which have been tantalizingly yet unrealistically fueled by Hollywood, this script by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) reminds us of a time when couples married not for love but for social convention.  Despite the inevitable friction that is destined to occur between mismatched characters like Walter and Kitty, however, it’s hard to imagine that this was such a terrible thing—especially as we compare the current marriage rate (down 30 percent in 25 years) and the mostly stagnant divorce rate (currently estimated at 40 to 45 percent for first marriages).  Is it harder or easier to fall in love before making a commitment?  This film invites us into the discussion.

The Painted Veil conveys a disappointing message about religion, however.  On the one hand, we hear of the singular dedication of a missionary family who perished from cholera.  We also see true forgiveness and reconciliation in action.  But, from a faith perspective, the mother superior recounts how God has disappointed with his silence, mirroring Kitty’s relationship with Walter.  As a result, the nun says, their relationship has become one of duty without love.

Thus, without anything to counteract this message, the film seems to say that real passion can only be found in human relationships.  It’s a sad statement that will no doubt resonate for many—especially those whose only experience of God is religion, rather than relationship. 

But what believers know—and what the mother superior fails to convey, however—is the promise, experienced by so many others, that God longs to meets us not when we fulfill spiritual obligations for him, but rather, when we cry out and embrace him on his terms. 

AUDIENCE:  Very mature teens and adults


  • None


  • Drugs/Alcohol: Drinking in numerous scenes; brief drug use in one; couple refers to their "hangovers" in another.
  • Language/Profanity: A few mild and/or “British” profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Various depictions of adultery and marital sexual situations, including brief nudity (upper rear female nudity and male rear nudity).
  • Violence: Various depictions of disease, death and suffering, as well as life-threatening street violence.