Edward Norton, who has given two award-caliber performances this year, in Down in the Valley and The Illusionist, now delivers a third. He uncovers a beating heart in Walter Fane, a social misfit of a British bacteriologist, who manages to persuade headstrong Kitty (Naomi Watts, a seductively dangerous blend of fire and ice) to marry him, leave her London whirl and travel with him to a remote Chinese village beset by a cholera epidemic. When a stop in Shanghai results in Kitty's adulterous fling with a diplomat (Liev Schreiber), the plot suggests that the vengeful Walter may be hoping the cholera will kill his wife. If you're suspecting this third movie version of W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel may carry the infectious dullness of prestige filmmaking, rest easy. Norton, who worked for six years to get the film produced, is up to far livelier business. As directed by the gifted John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore), from a taut script by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), the film is a period piece propelled by emotions accessible to a modern audience. Maugham never detailed Walter's work or Kitty's frustration; the film does. Maugham couldn't show us the China that opened Walter's and Kitty's eyes to a world beyond their own; the film does. And Maugham didn't have the benefit of two actors — Norton and Watts nail every nuance in their roles — who could show the romance inherent in mutual respect. The Painted Veil has the power and intimacy of a timeless love story. By all means, let it sweep you away.
From The Archives Issue 340: April 2, 1981