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The Painted Veil

Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in The Painted Veil

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

EDWARD Norton may not usually be associated with romantic movies (his directorial debut, Keeping The Faith aside) but he clearly has a keen eye for heartfelt tales that transcend time.

The Painted Veil is a long cherished labour of love that took six years to put together (as both star and producer). The result is a rich, sumptuous period drama that fully does justice to W. Somerset Maugham’s challenging source material.

What’s more, its imaginative and breathtaking use of Chinese locations lends proceedings a genuine touch of class that elevates it still further into the realms of epic status.

Set in China in 1925, John Curran’s film focuses on the challenging relationship between esteemed bacteriologist Dr Walter Fane (Norton) and his bored, adulterous wife Kitty (Naomi Watts).

Upon discovering her affair with Liev Schreiber’s married businessman, Walter gives Kitty an ultimatum – accompany him to a remote province that’s currently in the grip of a raging cholera epidemic or persuade her lover to leave his wife.

She is subsequently forced to travel out to the region only to rediscover a sense of purpose and passion amid the hostility and sickness that brings the couple closer together.

From its gripping sense of period – the film is set against the backdrop of the May Martyrs revolution and the enormous wave of anti-foreign resentment that swept the country at the time – to its intimate sense of character, The Painted Veil impresses on just about every level.

Norton and Watts make a believable couple and the rekindling of their romance is nicely handled without the need for any happy coincidences or Hollywood touches.

Norton, in particular, is brilliant at conveying both the bitterness and heartache of his early feelings and the practicality and determination of his caring doctor who ultimately finds his way back into Kitty’s heart.

But there’s strong support, too, from the likes of Tobey Jones, as a fellow foreigner who befriends Kitty in the region, and Diana Rigg, as a kindly Mother Superior.

Curran, making good on the promise he showed on We Don’t Live Here Anymore, makes excellent use of his hard-fought access to locations and ensures that the story is never over-played; relying instead on good, old fashioned acting prowess rather than anything over sensational.

His pacing and direction – although slow for some tastes and possibly too minimal for others – also ensures that the picture retains a contemporary relevance that’s sure to strike a chord with the politically savvy viewer.

The end result is a deeply impressive experience that’s intelligent, relevant and incredibly moving to boot. It has to rate as a major personal triumph for Norton as well.

Read our interview with Edward Norton

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 2hrs 5mins