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Fever Pith

Enduring Love In The Time Of Cholera--And Other Occidental Good Fortunes


CARRY THAT WEIGHT: Edward Norton relieves himself of his white man's burden.

The Painted Veil

Director:John Curran
Cast:Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Ian Rennick
Release Date:2007
Genre:Drama

Opens Jan. 5

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 1/3/2007

The Painted Veil asks the age-old Hollywood question: How many thousands of third-world natives must die to provide a spiritual awakening for handsome white people? The answer: Many.

In John Curran's movie, as in the Somerset Maugham novel that it's drawn from, it takes a cholera epidemic deep in the interior of China to salvage the seemingly doomed marriage between Walter Fane (Edward Norton) and his newlywed wife Kitty (Naomi Watts). Why does it require such drastic measures? Because the marriage was a really bad idea from the start.

Walter, a brilliant bacteriologist with the social skills of a bashful, 13-year-old boy, is smitten by the ravishing, vivacious Kitty at a London party. She is presented in the picture's opening scenes as a monster--a self-absorbed, arrogant hedonist who thinks nothing of snubbing Walter, her parents, or anyone else who commits the sin of failing to amuse her.

But in many ways, Walter's whipped-dog passivity is just as monstrous as her aggression. In 1925, when Maugham wrote his novel, you could perhaps get away with presenting non-verbal, physically repressed men as heroes, but now we recognize them as the manipulative cripples they are.

In a moment of weakness--bored with her friends and feeling trapped by her parents--Kitty impulsively decides to marry Walter and move with him to his new job in Hong Kong. It doesn't take her long to figure out what a mistake she has made. Walter is an aloof workaholic who's almost useless in bed, so Kitty starts spending her afternoons between the sheets with the local British Vice Consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). In her arrogance, she makes only a half-hearted attempt to disguise what she's doing.

Even Walter can't ignore the evidence, and he finally, reluctantly confronts his wife with this ultimatum: Get Charlie to divorce his wife and marry you or come with me to a rural village in the middle of a cholera epidemic. Charlie, of course, has no interest in marrying his piece on the side, and so the surprised, broken-hearted Kitty finds herself bumping along a dirt road, carried on a palanquin by half a dozen faceless Chinese. Walter, in his passive-aggressive way, punishes her by keeping her cooped up in an isolated house while he goes to the village hospital each day and by ignoring her when he returns each evening.

At this point in the movie, Walter and Kitty are two of the most unappealing people you'll ever meet--which is pretty astonishing, considering that Norton and Watts are so charismatic. But even if you've never heard of Somerset Maugham, you can guess what's going to happen next. Kitty is going to volunteer as a nurse in the local orphanage and will be so transformed by the experience of wiping the faces of cute little third-world infants that she will become a decent human being and a loving wife. Walter will be so moved by her transformation that he will suddenly become a Cathay Casanova.

These transformations happen like light switches being flipped and are not the least bit convincing. The blame can't be placed on Norton and Watts, who have amply proven their talent in other pictures. The blame must settle on director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore) and especially on screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia). The script is so schematic and the conversion so arbitrary that you can never forget that you're watching creaky Hollywood machinery.

Curran does conjure up a lovely vision of China in the 1920s when it still had sparsely populated regions of lush vegetation. Toby Jones does provide some relief as a decadent Truman Capote-like British bureaucrat who has gone native. There's a neat sequence where Walter builds an aqueduct for the village out of bamboo trunks. But not one of the Chinese becomes a three-dimensional character, and the pacing is glacial.

Meanwhile, the Chinese extras die gruesome deaths in the background. As the cholera drains their bodies of liquids, they moan and hold out their pleading hands as their emaciated shells writhe on cots and in the streets. Don't they realize that they are serving a higher purpose? Don't they know that they are making the ultimate sacrifice as marriage counselors?

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