Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Non Book Reviews

2007, directed by John Curran

"Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people."

On leave from his post as bacteriologist in 1920's Shanghai, Walter (Edward Norton) is drawn to the beautiful, spoiled Kitty (Naomi Watts), who accepts his almost immediate proposal so as to prevent her younger sister from marrying first. Having been bored in London, Kitty proceeds to be bored in Shanghai, and soon begins an affair with a local member of the diplomatic corps. Walter discovers her infidelity, and reacts to the blow by volunteering to travel inland to stem a chlorera outbreak and by offering Kitty a divorce on condition that her lover likewise divorces his wife and marries her. The lover refuses under the guise of not wishing to drag his innocent wife into the situation; Kitty has no choice but to accompany Walter into the eye of the storm.

Both are soon forced to consider much larger issues than their personal miseries. Familiar with disease only within a clinical research context via the safe and controllable barrier of a microscope, Walter is violently confronted with the unspeakably intense reality of human suffering that defines an epidemic. Initially thinking her biggest problems are living in the backwoods and learning that she is one of many fleeting female amusements for her lover, Kitty is confronted with the desperation of evergrowing numbers of orphans taken in at the convent when their parents fall victim to the outbreak.

Adding layers to the story are compelling secondary characters, including the Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) in charge of the convent and orphanage, the young doctor who must choose whether to side with British science (in the form of Walter's educated opinion of steps necessary to contain infection) or Chinese tradition (in the form of local customs regarding burial), a member of the diplomatic corps who has become a fixture in the area, and the highly educated General (Anthony Wong Chau Sang) who foresees the imminent death of the old ways yet bitterly resents a foreigner descending into his country to 'fix' its problems and presumably look down on its backwardness.

As the story moves its way through the dance Walter and Kitty go through discovering more about one another, it also highlights how few issues in life are truly black or white. Is a relationship between an older, influential British man and a young local woman necessarily exploitative? Is the good done by saving orphan children diminished by the expectation that they become Catholic in return? Is understandable feeling that a country should be in the power of its own citizens sufficient reason to reject outside expertise and allow local warlords and hazardous supersition to continue unchecked? And most of all: how can such a stunningly beautiful landscape contain such profound ugliness as epidemic disease?

"I think China should belong to Chinese. It seems most of the world disagrees with me."
"That doesn't concern me. I came here with a microscope, not a gun!"

Superbly acted, gorgeously filmed, with an excellent musical score, and telling an intensely dramatic story without melodrama, 'The Painted Veil' is a movie well worth the viewer's time.


Julia Smith said...

I've had a number of people tell me how great this is and how much I would love it. Something for me to look forward to, as I like both Edward Norton and Naiomi Watts.

Wylie Kinson said...

Moving, beautifully acted and jarringly-mind-opening.
The subtle layers of politics, social accountability, and cultural respect were woven through the story without completely overshadowing the simple love story at its heart.

M. said...

julia, wylie - i read somewhere that the two leads put up a fair bit of their own money to ensure the movie was made. i'm so glad they did. i've always liked ed norton (THE most contemptible villain in 'the italian job') but naomi watts never made much of an impression on me till this.