Based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel, The Painted Veil has to be one of the most dramatic love stories of the year - slotting it at the very same high-caliber level (in terms of cinematography, acting and storyline) of films such as Out of Africa (released in 1985 and one of the sensational Meryl Streep's older works with co-star Robert Redford), The English Patient (1996) and the more recent Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).
In The Painted Veil, Edward Norton plays Walter Fane, a reserved, gentle and sweet-tempered bacteriologist who falls placidly in love with a high-strung and rather precocious piano-playing beauty by the name of Kitty (Naomi Watts). By catching Kitty off-guard at a flower shop in town, Fane proposes in utmost (well-bred) politeness and warm sincerity. Dreading spinsterhood (constantly re-enforced by a taunting mother), Kitty readily agrees and the couple move to China where Fane practices his profession in Shanghai with fervour and skill. What tragically follows is squalid, ugly adultery, the aching pain of betrayal and the quiet determination of spirit - eventually leading to compassionate and a more 'refined' form of love. This two hour film is one that weaves its way around the discovery of self without an overwhelming dosage of melodrama. Nor is The Painted Veil an underwhelming tear-jerker (be sure to keep a box of tissues and a loved one within arms-reach).
Edward Norton's character representation in the movie has been carried out so brilliantly that his ratings as an actor are sure to place him in the category of A-grade Hollywood actors. With this film it is evident how dexterous Norton can be as an actor - he seems to fit into each of his roles without much effort at all. After films such as Fight Club, The Italian Job and Red Dragon, his portrayal of Fane in The Painted Veil, if carried out by any other actor, would have paled in comparison. It is almost as if the role was tailor-made for Norton.
In terms of its cinematography, the film has been shot superbly as it drifts from the present to the past and then back again. Besides, Watts and Norton's on-screen chemistry is pretty darn 'go-get-a-room' explosive. The anxiety in the air between the couple is tense and ripe, heavy too with shades of unrequited/tainted love. And as the movie progresses, you cannot help but to be absorbed and riveted by the lives of these two estranged lovers, amidst the backdrop of nationalist China and a life-threatening disease (cholera).
There is tremendous personality growth, self-analysis and lessons in humility that the main characters (especially Kitty) face in the length of the movie and if you're a woman, you'll find yourself questioning what a 'good' husband and a solid marriage ought to be 'made' of. Bad boys in fear of commitment come with a heavy price-tag and Kitty realizes just this when she has the door of soiled ardor slammed in her pale, pretty face.
Recognizing her ever-doting and tender Fane, Kitty begins to fall in love with the man who had once proposed to her months before in a flower shop.But is it too late?
I give it ****.5/*****