Year of Release: 2006 Directed by John Curran. Starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Toby Jones, Anthony Wong, Diana Rigg, and Liev Schreiber.
“Which is an inoffensive way of saying you believe in nothing.” So says the polite yet firm mother superior (Diana Rigg) to the flustered Kitty Fane. (Naomi Watts) Kitty is the wife of Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) who is working in a desolate Chinese village to treat a cholera epidemic. While her husband is committed to his work, she has never bothered to commit to anything, preferring instead to pursue whatever gives her temporary excitement and pleasure. This blunt assessment comes as a bit of a surprise to Kitty. While the comment may have been directed at her noncommittal reply to a question, it is also a fair judgment of her character.
The Painted Veil opens with Kitty and Walter standing in the Chinese countryside, waiting for their escort to arrive and take them to the village, so Walter can begin treating the cholera outbreak. Neither one speaks a word to the other; she reads a book and he admires the landscape. This silence is maintained until Walter pointedly asks her if she can continue traveling or needs a rest. Kitty’s reply is equally terse, and then their stony silence is preserved until they reach their destination.
Intercut with this sequence are several flashbacks. Walter and Kitty meet at one of her parents’ parties, and they fall in love. Or more specifically, he falls in love with her for unapparent reasons, and she agrees to marry him in order to spite her mother. Kitty also wanted to get as far away from her mother as possible, and Walter’s work as a bacteriologist requires them to live in Shanghai. When the thrill of showing-up her mother wears off, Kitty is quickly bored with Shanghai and her quiet work-devoted husband. She is clearly disappointed that he wishes to consummate their marriage in darkness instead of a passion-filled encounter. The newest excitement in her life is the rich and married Charlie Townshend. (Liev Schreiber) They bond at a Chinese opera as he explains the symbolism of the action, catering to her passions, and very shortly the two of them are having an affair.
Walter is understandably very upset. He informs Kitty that he will not divorce her as long as she accompanies him to the remote village where he will attempt to treat the cholera epidemic. When Kitty realizes Charlie does not love her and would never divorce his wife, she agrees to accompany her husband. Thus the film returns to the present story, where the couple hardly speaks to each other or looks at one another. As if to emphasize the distance between them, they sleep in separate bedrooms, which neither one has any intention of sharing.
This journey provides a fantastic learning opportunity for both Kitty and for Walter. Kitty is thrust into a world which she never had imagined existed. It provides her with her first examples of suffering and squalor, and she is given opportunities to help others or to pity herself. She also is able to see her husband at work and understand him as a person, learning that he is not a workaholic interested solely in the most fascinating bacteria strands. He is compassionate and wants to help the village. The local nuns inform her that he cares deeply for children and spends as much time as he can spare helping them.
While Walter may be altruistic towards the villagers, he is very bitter towards his wife. The journey to the cholera village had two purposes: to help the sick and to punish Kitty. As she slowly changes and repents, he finds the ability to forgive her. He learns that people can change and do not always follow the same predictable structure that bacteria follow. The change in his wife’s behavior has been foreshadowed, since much of Walter’s work required reversing the negative opinion that influential locals had for foreigners.
The most important lesson that Kitty learns is that love is a choice. It is not a temporary thrill. It takes commitment, devotion, sacrifice, and it is hard work. At the beginning of the film, the only person Kitty loves is herself, and she believes that love is a lust charged passion that sweeps her off her feet. In the cholera infected village, she learns about several types of love. A true and healthy sexual love blossoms between her and her husband, which culminates in the most passionate scene of the film. This love leads to genuine sorrow at their past failings, not because they pity themselves for doing what was wrong, but because they hurt each other with their selfish actions. Kitty also chooses to pursue a healthy affectionate love for the Chinese people of the village. She helps the nuns and works with the children, even when it is dangerous for herself. These sacrifices are what reawaken Walter’s love for her and lead to healing in their marriage.
All the actors, but especially Watts and Norton, are excellent at conveying emotion with their faces and their eyes. When they read a letter or listen to one another, their expressions change perfectly with the appropriate text. If the film were silent, the viewer would not need subtitles to understand the emotions and the actions in these scenes.
Watts makes Kitty very empathetic. Even when she is incredibly selfish, one can still relate to her as a human being. She desires fun and excitement and is terrified of boredom, like many people. Schreiber is not a stereotypical villain as her lover, but a flawed self-centered man. Norton is reserved as the doctor, and he conveys Walter’s pain and suffering well. Anthony Wong is stoic and commanding as the Chinese colonel.
Alexandre Desplat composed an impressive score that makes prominent use of the piano, as many of his scores do. At the very beginning of the movie, European piano music is superimposed over an Asian drum rhythm. There is a slight disconnect between the two, like Kitty’s disconnect with the Chinese village. As Kitty transforms, the music does as well. At a crucial turning point, she plays a badly out of tune piano for the orphans at the monastery, recalling the opening piano music but now transformed with percussive rhythms and non-Western intonation. The final cue before the credits has Chinese children singing a folk song with piano accompaniment, suggesting Kitty’s complete change.
Once Kitty has something to which she chooses to commit, her life begins to change. As she becomes increasingly committed and self-sacrificial, she learns the truth of the mother superior’s statement, “When love and duty are one, grace is within you.” Two crises occur towards the end of the film to test her resolve and her repentance. In both instances, she follows her sense of duty out of love, serving others instead of herself. Kitty’s choice of commitment led to a transformation in her life from selfishness to love and grace.
Content Advisory: Several sexual situations including adultery and martial lovemaking, fleeting rear and partial nudity, gruesome images of cholera victims, and an instance of profanity. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment
Personal Recommendation: A