Saturday, November 18, 2006


What is incalculable in human beings—thereby, summarily exempt from the feckless foibles of expectation and disappointment—becomes the cradle of what can ultimately be apprehended, respected and perhaps even loved. Or so W. Somerset Maugham suggested in his 1925 novel The Painted Veil, recently adapted for the screen by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), directed by John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore) and starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, who have likewise co-produced the project.

Though Maugham's The Painted Veil has been turned into a film twice before—first in 1934 as a melodrama with Greta Garbo and then in 1957 as The Seventh Sin—this most recent adaptation is the brain child of Edward Norton, who has nurtured the project for the last six years.

Norton portrays Dr. Walter Fane, a bacteriologist who falls in love with Kitty (Naomi Watts), an upper class London socialite. Their hasty marriage is not based on reciprocal feeling. Kitty has accepted Walter's proposal primarily to escape the disapproval of her mother. It is 1925 after all and Kitty is risking becoming an old maid and a burden to her parents. Walter becomes her ticket to a new life in Shanghai, China.

Set against a backdrop of social upheaval and the breathtaking landscapes of China's Guangdong province, their unique love story evolves. Kitty, reckless and selfish, has been unfaithful to Walter, engaging in an illicit affair with Shanghai's handsome but married British vice consul, Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber). A retaliatory Walter, hurt by his wife's indiscretion, shifts them to the remote village Mei-tan-fu under the pretext of helping out against a cholera outbreak. The decision is challenging and dangerous for both of them. Under such extreme conditions they are forced to resolve their flawed expectations.

The performances in this ensemble are provided in taut measures; mannered eloquent by way of restraint. Edward Norton—whose mirthful eye waxes expressive—manages to convey immense feeling—passionate infatuation, bitter rancor, as well as gradual reassessment. Naomi Watts shifts from a spoiled woman blinded by selfish concerns to someone whose eyes open commensurate to her heart. Their conflicted interaction set against such an exotic locale (sensuously filmed by Stuart Dryburgh) will invite easy comparisons to David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter) and Anthony Minghella (The English Patient). It certainly is as classic—and effective—a romance as any of those.

Supporting roles are all competent. Toby Jones—released from the grip of Capote—portrays Deputy Commissioner Waddington, the Fanes' only neighbor in Mei-tan-fu. Anthony Wong Chau-Sang is statuesque as General Yu, begrudgingly setting aside differences with Walter Fane to deter the cholera epidemic. Liev Schreiber as the handsome strategist Charles Townsend forces Kitty to examine her fruitless desires.

Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior, particularly, lends so much through so little. She has always been one of my favorite actresses, ever since I was a young boy and in love with her characterization of Emma Peel in the British television series The Avengers. It's odd the moments actors provide that stay with you throughout a lifetime. When Diana Rigg left The Avengers, I recall her character descending a flight of stairs and encountering her replacement to whom she offered the key advice that John Steed (Patrick Macnee) preferred his tea stirred counterclockwise. All these years later, that has stayed with me.

The film's desultory piano accompaniment by Lang Lang accentuates the gradual awakening of unexpected grace, defined by the Mother Superior as the combination of love and duty.

Not having read W. Somerset Maugham's novel, I'm not exactly sure what he is conveying in the image of a painted veil. Does it refer to Inanna's nakedness after the seventh veil has fallen? Whether or not, the film's opening montage is a masterful superimposition of historical tableaux, bacterial activity, and floral evanescence, suggesting that beneath surface appearances, behind the incalculable, is what we must learn in order to love.

Cross-posted at Twitch, where Diana (whose LiveJournal site Fire of Spring is literate and lovely) responded to my query about Maugham's use of "the painted veil" with this educated response:

The title is meant as a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Lift not the painted veil which those who live." The sonnet goes:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o’er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it—he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

Cross-published at Twitch.


Anonymous said...

Typo! my fault. I'm so sorry. (Thank you for the link, by the way.)

The title is "Lift not the painted veil..." not "LIVE not the painted veil..."

Michael Guillen said...

Typos are easily remedied, Diana. I remain grateful for your input and look forward to the chance to explore your own site.

Anonymous said...

I am really looking forward to this film. It looks beautiful and Norton is always amazing. Excellent review.

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Marina. Please let me know what you think once you've had a chance to see it.

Anonymous said...

Referenced your post in my post for the Painted Veil. Thought your post was wonderful...all those great pictures. I'm probably going to teach Maugham's classic in Spring 2007 to women (mostly) who sign up for my literature classes at a local community college.
Come visit me at

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Teach! Will swing on over.

Anonymous said...

"Not having read W. Somerset Maugham's novel, I'm not exactly sure what he is conveying in the image of a painted veil." Really? It's explained in the first two lines of the poem. The painted veil is life.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with Carol. The veil is not life at all. It is what some people, who are hiding behind call life. The poem tells of a character that takes off the veil to persue something more real and meaningful, as the characters of the novel do through their self realizations.

Mega N! said...

So, I completed this book some time ago and had to let it settle and kick around in my brain for awhile. Somerset Maugham comes out pretty stongly against British society in the 1920's, painting everyone involved as friviolous, and somewhat empty-headed, with the main target of his snarky attacks leveled at the herione Kitty Fane.
This book reads like the angry fantasy of a fifteen year old social outcast pining away for the achingly beautiful popular girl in class who has no redeeming qualities outside of her aforementioned appearance: "I'll find a way to MAKE her fall in love with me. Then I'll leave her in some dramatic manner....uhh I'll...uhh...COMMIT SUICIDE! Yeah, then she'll be all grieving and heartstricken, that'll show her! She'll learn a thing or two from me."
Of course that isn't exactly the plot of the novel. All the characters are adults, and the sequence of events play out on a much grander scale, yet there is that sting of adolecent anguish underlying everything that spoils the more lofty message about how we all grow and change when presented with the opportunity to.
In the recent movie, It's obvious that the screenplay writers would agree with me as to the harsh treatment of Kitty Fane by the narration. The screen adaptation gives her character too much of a pass though, and the manner in which the viewers are presented with Walter Fane, her aloof yet staggeringly relevent husband, seems to say "With a guy like this, you'd cheat on him too." Since the movie also cuts out the eventual growth and development of Kitty as a human being, they create a different product entirely. The movie's focus is more on the importance of communication in a relationship, which is indeed an interesting topic to me, it's just not the point Somerset Maugham was looking to put across. Oh, but the shooting on location sure makes the movie a good experience. Thanks for the backstory on the novel and the movies!