The Painted Veil John Curran

W. Somerset Maugham gets the middlebrow lit-flick treatment, and it’s no better or worse than any other film in the genre.

Naomi Watts stars as a young British woman who marries doctor Edward Norton as a means of getting away from her mother. She realises her mistake and takes a lover in the married Liev Schreiber, prompting Norton to drag his new wife to isolation in a remote, cholera-infested area of China. There they have to learn to trust each other again, if the cholera doesn’t kill them first.

The film does a big tightrope walk in its attempts to handle the scenes in China: too much sanitising and its unbelievable, too little and the racist attitudes seep in. As it stands, the movie does okay, looking very nice in that studied heritage picture way and having a good time with Toby Jones’s lively colonial role.

Still, we ask for a little more from movies than looking pretty, and there’s the sense that things are a little too clean and neat to stand in for the chaotic messiness of reality. As well, some supporting Chinese characters are handled a little awkwardly and even the main drama with Watts and Norton is strained by the sense that we are watching actors, albeit very good actors, doing theatre in a vacuum instead of real people with genuine problems.

Nevertheless, I’d rather watch this movie than 65 percent of the movies on which I normally pass judgment, and it passes the time quite well if you don’t think too hard about it. I’d rather that it go a little further, but at the close of a bad year for movies in general I think I’ll take what I can get.