Saturday, September 29, 2007


RUNTIME: 125 min.
RATING: *****

Tough it is to find romance, romance in a film that isn’t only about it, romance between characters that we care for from our heart, romance that grows gradually as they learn each other, romance between people who serve the world, romance between two adults who know what love is all about. Tougher, when it is a period adaptations set during politically tumultuous times in foreign countries. Toughest, when the film might haunt you long after it ends.
This Somerset Maugham novel is a tough one for three reasons – 1. Characters don’t evolve or change, only the perspectives change 2. The tone is bleak, and it is not romantic even remotely 3. Maugham has never been too good at being picturesque, most of his “descriptive” words are excuses for the mystery of the Oriental – and to carve out such a delicate film rich with emotions, romantic and otherwise, is nothing short of an achievement. Set mostly in 1925 China, The Painted Veil treads multiple paths, paying varying degrees of attention but achieving almost uniformly spectacular results. At its heart (and how so apt is the phrase) though is the romantic tale between Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a bacteriologist and Kitty Garstin (Naomi Watts). Kitty, spoilt from childhood and a disappointment to her mother, marries Walter who proposes after meeting her at a party. Though Walter loves her, Kitty sees him as a replacement to her father as a source for her spending. Walter is transferred to a government laboratory in Shanghai where Kitty meets a married British diplomat Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber) and falls into adultery. Walter comes to learn of it and gives her two choices – either to accompany him to a remote part of China under the scourge of cholera epidemic he has volunteered for or divorce on the condition that Charles promises to marry her. When he backs away, Kitty has no choice but to travel with her husband, both barely speaking to each other. As she sees him at work, her husband appears in a new light and the romance blossoms.
Though this is no comparison vis-à-vis the book (I’ve always believed that good films shouldn’t be obliged to their source material at all), the digression of the film from the book in the second half is interesting, and both have something important to say. The book, a wonderful read, doesn’t have any romance blossoming between Kitty (who doesn’t exactly remain the spoilt, selfish person) and Walter (who remains stoic towards her). The characters never evolve; in fact, the reader feels Maugham is desperate to shut the doors on any possibility of a romance which the characters so very much are begging for. Kitty Fane describes Walter with all the admirable qualities yet somehow to dispel the romantic notions spinning in our minds, Maugham inserts a line, with uncanny regularity, that conveys Kitty’s despair at not finding her husband lovable. I asked myself several times – “Dear, what else is love?” Walter volunteers in a bid to let her die in the plague and his last line suggests, he realizes it was wrong on his part. Maybe that was reality for Maugham and maybe he didn’t perceive Kitty has a foolish, ignorant person but almost an irredeemable shallow one who can never be strong enough to grow. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (his last screenplay for a theatrical release was Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia), perceives them with a marked difference. And he evolves them in a world markedly different from theirs, which to me felt more real. One might argue that it isn’t practical, at least not in the short timelines of the film. I don’t think so, a radically different world, a radically different culture, radically different circumstances change people. Kitty never was exposed to a world where one needs to care for others as well, where romantic pursuits is not the ultimate aim of life but just a cornerstone, where harsh realities her world can’t even fathom exist. And when she did, not only did she see her husband in a new life, she saw herself in a new life. What else do we mean when we say a person grows, all his life? And I believe, romance between two people who as Walter says in the film were silly enough to look for qualities in each other they never had is much more interesting than the lack of it between two who live in and are destined for the gloom.
Serving as a backdrop to the beautiful romance is a canvass of political turmoil, human tragedy and a cultural clash. The script is brilliant; I’m sure it just missed the bus on the Academy Award nominations. The narrative never stalls and it never feels hurried too. Taking measured steps, the film treads intelligently its paths, always painting the larger picture yet somehow managing to concentrate on the central relationship. It doesn’t pose ambiguous stands; it knows its own political and moral views and presents them assuredly. Are the Christian missionaries noble? The film doesn’t think so. Is the occupation justified? Of course not. Are Walter and his breed noble? Oh yes, they are. Yet the people don’t seem to understand their own good. Yet, how can they and how are they supposed to? The subtle nature of it all and its seeming ability to generate drama by presenting the seemingly clichéd in a spectacularly new way is amazing. The amah chants prayers at the window to ward off the evil spirit to which Kitty comments – “They are so superstitious”. To which her neighbor Mr. Waddington reacts – “She has lost her three children and her husband to the cholera. Can she be blamed?” It struck me; such huge personal losses question the faith of the best. Is it the fear that is so powerful or is her faith so strong, or is it her humanity that makes her pray for the well being of the two strange foreigners? The characters are etched with great care, even the unimportant ones like Kitty’s guard contributing immensely to the viewing experience. The dialogues contribute immensely too, just as emotionally infectious as reading a book. Kitty Fane remarks – “Since when did virtue make a woman fall in love?” And that speaks volumes of her.

The film is beautiful to look at; the locales are as romantic as the tale. Every frame seems to have been put together with utmost delicateness. The cinematography is brilliant, the colors so suggestive of nostalgia. The background score by Alexandre Desplat (Syriana, The Queen) is something that wouldn’t leave; it is adventurous in that romantic sort of way. It renders great strength to the film, giving it the Oriental touch, and underlining the delicateness of the film. And a lot of the credit goes to John Curran (We Don’t Live here Anymore) as well. To accomplish so much in so little a time, yet always conveying the emotions is brilliant. He paints everything, China, its people, the epidemic yet amongst all that manages to tell a sweeping romantic tale. Curran seems to have a great gift of storytelling to a degree few can boast of.
No words of praise would be enough for Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. The character could have been so easily common cliché-ridden, Norton infuses new life and pleasures us with the depths. Watts is like one of the beauties from a bygone age; she never seems to be melodramatic yet we always feel the pain within to no end. She with a broken heart says- “Do you absolutely despise me?” He replies, with nonchalance, with a cruelty yet with that blend of nobility that conveys his own broken heart – “No I despise myself, for loving you once.” The conversation, where the romance blooms in all its glory for the first time, is a revelation, a joy to watch. I wonder, what made Nyswaner not to set his story in modern day Africa and set up a platform for a political message of some sort too. I think that would have weakened the film considerably, putting unnecessary attention on the political backdrop. The Painted Veil explores the depths of human hearts, how we react to foreigners not who come with guns but who come with noble intentions and a microscope, how one might live in a life full of self-serving, how we are so susceptible to our judgment and our hopes at first sight. And it also speaks how truly romantic that old saying is – To err is human, to forgive is divine. I would say, to forgive is humanity. One of the best films of 2006.

Reviewer's note: I have since watched the film a second time and have realised that Walter Fane indeed wanted to kill Kitty. This knowledge was shared by both yet the romance blossomed makes me appreciate the characters, and thus the film further.

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