Produced by and starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, The Painted Veil might appear at a glance to be the usual pretty romance in an exotic location. It's true that this adaptation of a thrice-filmed W. Somerset Maugham novel casts the duo as English adventurers in 1925 Hong Kong, but they're also a deeply embittered married couple still together only because Norton's doctor refuses his wife a divorce. What follows is an unusually considered look at the responsibilities of marriage and the flexibility of relationships given enough time and empathy. And, of course, you get many of the pleasures of the usual pretty romance in an exotic location.
Watts plays Kitty Fane, whose strays from her stilted marriage to Norton's aloof bacteriologist Walter Fane. After catching his wife in a compromising position, Walter won't let the marriage go quietly. Instead he bullies Kitty into accompanying him to China, where he will volunteer his services in studying and combatting the cholera epidemic. With all the bitterness to be expected of an angry cuckold, Norton shades the decision to suggest a murder-suicide plot (the two spitefully refuse innoculation); Watts brings equal emotional verisimilitude to the unexpected consequences of her indiscretion. Introduced to her new life, she says, "It's smaller than I imagined."
Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) penned the sensitive script, which captures both the prideful contention and yearning for reconciliation that can characterize a still-open marital wound. Meanwhile, a subplot about union-busting puts the couple in the uncomfortable position of representing British imperial rule. "It was silly for us to look for qualities in each other that we knew we never had," one spouse confesses, but their temporary refusal to make eye contact eventually becomes not only looking, but seeing more than they ever knew was there.
Director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore) directs with a kind of tasteful stylelessness that puts the attention on the leads and the setting that envelops them (sadly, Curran can't save Norton from a fluctuating English dialect). In supporting roles, Liev Schreiber and Toby Jones turn in nice work, and Alexandre Desplat's score provides lush compliment to Stuart Dryburgh's location lensing. Curran's latest may not set the film world afire, but it's a basically faultless drama for grown-ups. Like a long-term relationship, The Painted Veil is well-intentioned and not particularly sexy, but understands duties of forgiveness, sacrifice, and commitment.