John Curran’s The Painted Veil came and went back in 2006 and that’s a shame because it’s a very well appointed period piece with multilayered performances from producers/stars Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. I think part of the issue might’ve been due to the fact that both characters are so selfish and rude to each other that it’s the sort of brittle drama that might not appeal to as many people had it been more traditional. And the fact that the production company behind the film went bankrupt after production – never a good thing. Watts plays a woman who is caught in an affair (Liev Schreiber is her suitor) by her husband (Norton), a virologist who forces her to accompany him to cholera-stricken China. Set in the 1920’s, the film has tremendous production value, benefitting enormously from the all-on-location shooting in China, with the great cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (Blackhat, The Piano, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) capturing the golden light against the lush greenery of the country. Watts’s confused wife is tested emotionally all throughout the film, as she and a volatile Norton go at each other with frustration and anger, mostly due to the fact that they weren’t a perfect match to begin with, let alone appropriate spouses.
Adapted from the classic W. Somerset Maugham novel by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), there’s definitely a literary quality to the dialogue and to the plotting, and it’s the sort of movie that picks up serious steam as it heads into the last act that makes its rocky beginning all the more rewarding. Not “rocky” as in poorly constructed, but rather, this is no lovey-dovey romance set against picturesque backdrops. Both lead characters are flawed, with the filmmakers not shying away from this fact or making it easy for the audience to latch onto them. Featuring a fabulous musical score from Alexandre Desplat that more than matches Dryburgh’s gorgeous visuals, The Painted Veil deserves a higher profile; at the moment there’s no American Blu-ray but a region free German import is available. But that’s sort of been the case with all of Curran’s films. His edgy Robert De Niro/Ed Norton thriller Stone and the introspective Mia Wasikowska drama Tracks were both terrific in their own ways, and his troubling script for Michael Winterbottom’s nasty The Killer Inside Me was very memorable. And his 2004 drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore strove for and found 70’s-esque grittiness with its story of marital discontent. He’s a continually interesting filmmaker and I look forward to seeing more from him.