A Forgettable, Supposedly Sweeping Movie
I saw an advance screening of The Painted Veil a month or two ago, and I barely remember it. It's one of those movies that you know you're going to forget even as you're watching it, that slides straight through your mind and out the back of the movie theater. It's set in Europe and Asia in the 1920s, particularly in Shanghai and remote China, a landscape of rivers and mountains and cinematic possibility, but the camerawork is nothing startling. The dialogue is adequate. The actors seem bored. It's based on a book I've never read—by W. Somerset Maugham, published 1925—and you get the sense that Maugham's novel must be rich with the kind of psychological detail you can't get from an extended shot of Naomi Watts staring into the rain, because that's about all that's going on here.
Watts's character is named Kitty, and she spends a lot of the movie with gluey eyes and puffy cheeks. Her problem is that she has married and moved to Shanghai with a bacteriologist named Walter (Edward Norton, who is virtuous to the point of dullness, stiff and unappealing). Since she doesn't love him, she wastes no time getting action elsewhere (Liev Schreiber). Walter finds out, and he volunteers to relocate to the rural reaches of the country where a hazardous cholera outbreak is underway, telling Kitty that she's going with him or they're getting a divorce. Her other options don't pan out, so she goes with him. Under duress, they strangely begin to start to like each other. Then one of them dies. Are you getting the arbitrariness of all this? A movie like this, all surfaces and plot and ostensible impact, has no effect except to remind you of all the things that books do better.