The Painted Veil Review: Great Visuals, Weak Narrative
by Alex Billington
December 29, 2006
The Painted Veil is Warner Independent's latest release from executive producer Bob Yari (The Illusionist, Crash) and director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore, Praise) about the destruction and reconstruction of a relationship when a spouse has an affair, and about how a relationship can be rebuilt from nothing. The film is visually astounding, set deep in a remote Chinese village in the 1920s, but it lacks a consistently entertaining story. I was looking forward to a well-made movie but was disappointed by the humdrum storytelling.
Walter (Edward Norton), a doctor, and Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts) are a young couple who move to Beijing in the 1920s. We are quickly thrown into the depths of their romance as we learn of the affair Kitty is in with their friend Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). After discovering her adulterous ways, Walter decides to punish Kitty by taking her on his outing to a remote Chinese village that is under a cholera epidemic, all while their disdain for each other continues to grow. Here we meet Waddington (Toby Jones), and the story begins to develop into something much more about discovery and life than about the affair and destruction of their relationship.
The Painted Veil isn't likely to hold the attention of a mainstream audience, except for just a few shining moments of intensity and feigning scenes of excitement thanks to Edward Norton and Toby Jones. It uses its location much to its advantage, and would not have been at all as enjoyable were it not filmed on location in rural China. The film has a very distinctive visual look that goes hand-in-hand with the theme and mood - it's even captured perfectly on the poster, too. You'll observe it and know it well, and that achievement is only ever exhibited from passionate independent filmmakers. The camera work is superb - this is clearly an artful film - but the director's storytelling and the long, mundane scenes made this a laborious film to watch.
As the character Walter, Ed Norton is hard to identify uniquely in The Painted Veil - he did not distance himself from performances in other recent films like The Illusionist. Although I may be just overlooking his capabilities, as he delivers a profound screen presence with nearly every film, including this one. However the most glowing performance was found in any appearance from Toby Jones; now I regret not seeing him as Truman Capote in Infamous earlier this year. Jones steals the show in Veil as Waddington, and I plan to keep an eye on this great actor as he gets more work in the years ahead.
The Painted Veil has both its incredible strengths: the beautiful landscapes in the backdrop of China, the great performances from Norton and Jones, and a great soundtrack - and vast weaknesses: boring scenes, lengthy narratives, and a director who still needs some polish - but unfortunately the weaknesses pulled too much away from its bright plot. I appreciate these new filmmakers' attempts and independent releases, as they have incredible production values, but I walked out of The Painted Veil without much of an appreciation for John Curran's latest feature.