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Just as Seinfeld’s Elaine was ostracized for hating The English Patient, there will probably be trouble for anyone who doesn’t fall in love with The Painted Veil. Like the 1996 Oscar winner, the film masterfully combines a powerful love story, cultural conflicts and engaging performances that will have James Lipton drooling on Inside the Actor’s Studio.
Based on the classic novel by Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil begins in 1920’s London society, where Kitty (Naomi Watts) is considered an old maid though she is just in her early twenties. Rather than remain with her oppressive mother, Kitty chooses to marry the boring, unexpressive bacteriologist Walter Fane (Edward Norton) and quickly moves with him to Shanghai.
Walter is not quite the knight in shining armor Kitty imagined, and she gives up all hope on him after an awkward romantic encounter with his socks on and the lights off. Kitty finds solace in British colonial society where she meets the animated Vice Counsel Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber). Their relationship rapidly develops into a passionate affair and it isn’t long before Walter discovers their secret. Broken hearted, Walter accepts a position in a cholera-infested village and cruelly insists that Kitty come with him.
Forced to fend for herself in the remote village of Mei-tan-fu, Kitty befriends her neighbor, Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones) who helps her grow accustomed to the strange surroundings. As disease and strife tear apart the world around them, Kitty and Walter find a way to come back together.
For those familiar with the 1934 film or the novel itself, The Painted Veil will still impress since the engaging plot comes secondary to the powerful performances and amazing cinematography. At times, the scenery was so beautiful I caught myself thinking, “Cholera-Schmolera I wouldn’t mind honeymooning here!” Both Watts and Norton give outstanding performances and the chemistry between them certainly outshines that of real-life lovers Watts and Schreiber. At times, a glance between them was moving enough to make you shiver. The dialogue is also wonderfully subtle so that you can feel the characters’ emotions without choking on your popcorn at cheesy “I love you's.”
I know most guys are thinking “Chick Flick Alert!” and I’m not going to deny sobbing through a good portion of the film. That being said, a man purposefully bringing his foppish wife into the middle of a Cholera epidemic isn’t exactly A Walk to Remember. Seriously, while The Painted Veil is romantic, it isn’t really about love as much as self-discovery in light of cultural differences and bleak circumstances. Plus there’s nudity, opium, and death so suck it up macho-man and see the movie.