January 18, 2007

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The Painted Veil (PG-13)
A husband and a wife fall in love — scandalously, to each other — in The Painted Veil, a lovely romance in 1920s China.

Don’t worry — there’s also infidelity, marital disappointment, mutual cruelty, possible death by cholera and possible death by angry anti-government types. So while there are sappy parts, there is also plenty of crackling good bitterness and opportunity for danger.

Kitty (Naomi Watts) is a lovely British girl if a bit, ahem, well as her mother suggests she isn’t the youngest chicken in the coop anymore. Her parents’ pressure to find a man (other than her father) to support her upper- class lifestyle of general frivolity leads her to marry the quiet doctor Walter (Edward Norton), a man who falls headlong in love with Kitty more or less the moment he meets her, despite the fact that they have nothing in common. Looking to get away from her family, Kitty doesn’t so much mind that Walter takes her around the world — to Shanghai — to live. But then she gets bored. Finding a fellow troublemaker in (married) embassy official Charlie Townsend, Kitty embarks on a rather silly affair, one that is all puppy crush on her side and lust on his but flaming crazy hatred on the part of Walter. He’s not the jealous rage type but when he finds out about the affair, he tells Kitty that she will either travel with him to a remote village suffering from a cholera epidemic or he will divorce her.

After coming to terms with the idea that she and Charlie would not be 2gether4ever (their romance is rather knowingly high school level in its sophistication), Kitty decides to travel with Walter, undergoing a deeply uncomfortable journey to a very rustic locale. Once her situation has settled, however, Kitty decides she needs more. Despite a rather princessy attitude toward life, she decides to offer her services to an orphanage run by the nuns (even though it increases the likelihood of exposure to cholera) so that she can at least feel that she is contributing in some way to a larger world. This sudden burst of maturity gets Walter thinking that his pretty blond wife might not be so bad after all.

The Painted Veil has sappy parts but like all good romances that don’t feel the need to squeeze in a sassy best friend and a quirky neighbor the sappy parts feel genuine — organic sap as opposed to the saccharine sweetness that develops when a story tries to manufacture sap that doesn’t belong there. Watts and Norton play their roles behind shy looks and sly smiles — perfect for two people who get to know each other after they’ve already become married. The movie makes smart use of the lush Chinese countryside, putting our characters in the verdant mix for extra lushness but not letting it overpower the performances.

Quiet and slow to warm up, The Painted Veil, like the characters it portrays, is worth waiting around for. B

Rated PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content. Directed by John Curran and written by Ron Nyswaner from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil is two hours and five minutes long and is distributed by Warner Independent Pictures in limited release. The movie is scheduled to begin a run at Wilton Town Hall Theatre on Jan. 26.