In its space, pacing, and plot dynamics, John Curran
's The Painted Veil has an inherent nostalgia for Hollywood yesteryear. Never as shrewd as to reference it ad-nauseum (see Nancy Meyers
' The Holiday
), Curran's love story in the time of cholera accepts its rather sparse elements and lush landscapes as a way to reconnect with the simplicity of story and intricacy of image that classic Hollywood prided itself on, even if the attempt isn't wholly successful.
It's at a 1920s London socialite meeting that Walter Fane (Edward Norton
) gets his first glimpse at Kitty (Naomi Watts
). Under a rather light dress, she ignores men as if she wasn't even aware of her attire, but Walter's fascination is adamant and quite terminal. Swiftly, Fane asks for her hand in marriage at a local flower shop which Kitty accepts solely to prove her mother wrong. This genuine shallowness and pride makes Walter the bacteriologist look quite boring and married Vice Consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber
) look so appealing. It's when Walter learns of Kitty's adultery that he decides to take up an opportunity to study a cholera epidemic in the Chinese village of Mai-tan-fu, insisting that his wife accompany him.
The couple's mutual bitterness toward each other doesn't so much set up a rousing battle of the sexes as it becomes a divider that allows them both to explore the plague-stricken remnants of Mai-tan-fu. As Walter investigates the water supply under the surveillance of Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong
), Kitty becomes a regular fixture of the orphanage that is run by the Mother Superior (a no-bull Diana Rigg
). Their only common bond when they arrive is Waddington (Toby Jones
), a cynical Deputy Commissioner who is the only other Englishman in Mai-tan-fu. It's through a gently built admiration of each other's work that they begin to notice each other again. Article continues below
Constructed by a solid script by Ron Nyswaner, Curran seems dead-set on keeping the conflict and characters clear-cut. Watts and Norton, two consummate professionals, use each their characters' flaws (his boredom, her vanity) to ignore the serious danger of contagion. Similar to his first feature, Curran's fascination seems to be with the vastness of nature seen as a place of intimacy. Though nothing here matches the work in We Don't Live Here Anymore (another Curran-Watts collaboration), the film has a fluidity of imagery that paints Mai-tan-fu as very personal area for Walter and Kitty, its danger and isolation both seen clearly.
Curran's heaving romance is reminiscent of classic displaced love, but there's a meandering mood to it that's hard to shake. It's not particularly boring, but its fascinations with character and landscapes are often fleeting. When Kitty and Walter finally embrace each other fully, it's not long before another passable conflict arises, and it's soon followed by yet another one. At other moments, its fascination with classic Hollywood seems horrifyingly blatant: As Walter gallops away to stop an impending cholera outbreak, the hat on his head blows off as his white shirt writhes in the wind. And yet, these awkward moments never seem to be of great detriment to Curran's seething romance nor to his haunting imagery that seems to have the specter of the cholera epidemic looming overhead like a rain cloud. Short of a "Here's looking at you, kid," The Painted Veil is an apt visitation to the curious romances of the old days.