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DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The Painted Veil (1 Viewer)

Ken_McAlinden

Reviewer
Senior HTF Member
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Feb 20, 2001
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Kenneth McAlinden

The Painted Veil

Directed By: John Curran

Starring: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg, Anthony Wong


Studio: Warner Independent Features

Year: 2007

Rated: PG-13

Film Length: 125 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Subtitles: English, Spanish, French

Release Date: May 8, 2007
More fartsy! Less artsy!
-- Homer Simpson
The Film

"The Painted Veil" is an adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel of the same name which was previously adapted as a 1934 Greta Garbo vehicle and, under the title of "The Seventh Sin", as a 1957 Eleanor Parker film. The film, set in the 1920s, tells the tale of Kitty (Watts) and Walter (Norton) Fane. Walter is a British bacteriologist who has volunteered to travel to a small Chinese village that is being devastated by a cholera outbreak. The explanation as to why he has brought his estranged wife on the journey is told in flashback as they make an extensive overland journey to the town. We learn that Kitty had accepted an awkward and hasty proposal from Walter based more on the need to leave her parents home than out of any genuine affection. Finding herself in Shanghai where Walter is conducting research, boredom with both her husband and her circumstances leads her to marital infidelity. She learns that she has mistaken her husband's quiet reserve for meekness when, after learning of the affair, he volunteers to travel to the cholera-ravaged village with his wife in tow. In the pressure-cooker environment of the village, fueled by the massive number of recent deaths, the imminent threat of infection, the inherent distrust of westerners, and even feudal tensions between the national military and local warlords, Kitty and Walter slowly gain new perspective on both themselves and each other.

The film is very deliberately paced, taking its cue from the restrained Merchant-Ivory school of literary adaptations. Norton and Watts embody their characters well, but since they are playing two characters who for much of the film have essentially built walls around themselves, they come across as much less ineteresting than the supporting players. Unfortunately, those supporting players, including Liev Shreiber as the high-ranking diplomat who cuckolds Norton, Diana Rigg as the Mother-Superior who runs the orphanage near the Chinese village, Anthony Wong as the pragmatic Colonel Yu, and Toby Jones as a career diplomat who copes with his post near the village via a sense of duty, a mistress, and indulgence in opiates, are not given much attention aside from sketching in some potentially compelling backstories. I am not familiar with the source novel, but this is usually a sign of difficulties in adapting a complex novel with many richly developed characters into a film with a more streamlined narrative. Rigg, in particular, is given little to do besides struggle with and ultimately abandon a French accent and deliver a monologue in the third act about love and duty that spells out the theme of the movie for anyone who was not paying attention.

The Chinese characters are given particularly short shrift as is often a source of criticism for films that use foreign cultures as atmospheres in which British or American characters operate rather than sources of compelling and real characters. In this case, it actually thematically serves the point of illustrating Kitty's emerging recognition of the world around her. As the film progresses, Kitty moves from an uncaring obliviousness to an empathy and awareness of the suffering of those around her.

The restrained nature of the film and its two lead characters leads to a subtle, realistic, and dramatically earned transformation in the film's third act, but the process of getting there is so belabored, and the lead characters so borderline bloodless, that I did not feel invested enough to appreciate their small victories or fully feel the impact of their personal tragedies. It is almost as if the filmmakers were so afraid of showing any trace of sentimentality that they pushed the audience away from the characters. That being said Watts does subtly play the undercurrents of Kitty's thoughts throughout the movie, and her personal journey is the compass setting by which patient viewers are guided through the narrative. Most of the problems seem to stem from editorial choices by which the film drives home certain elements, such as the initial awkward incompatibility of Kitty and Walter, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, while glossing over other elements, such as Kitty's home life before meeting Walter, that could have added more depth to the characterizations.

One area where the film excels is in its beautiful cinematography. Director Curran and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh really make the most of their Chinese location footage, but also achieve impressive results with atmospheric lighting of several interiors. Naomi Watts must have slipped them a few bucks before filming began, because they spend a lot of time making her look beautiful in various settings.

The Video

The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer for "The Painted Veil" renders the stylish palette fairly effectively. There are occasional artifacts with a bit of subtle wavering/shimmering along edges that are consistent with what I have seen in theatrical presentations of films that have gone through a 2K digital intermediate process. Edge enhancement is negligible to non-existent throughout, but compression sometimes has trouble keeping up with the film grain resulting in some blocking and splotchiness. That being said, this is a film that all but cries out for a high-definition presentation as the amount of detail in the frame for the various scenic exteriors cannot really be done justice at 480p NTSC.

The Audio

Much like the film itself, the sound-field rendered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is very reserved. The surround channels carry significant content only in a few select scenes. Even a sequence involving heavy rains places most of the ambient sound in the front hemisphere of the mix. Fidelity is very good, with the highlight of the mix being the tasteful score written by French composer Alexandre Desplant and featuring solo piano work from Chinese virtuoso Lang Lang. No alternate language dubs are included on the disc.

The Extras

The packaging indicates no extras, but the film's theatrical trailer is included, presented at an aspect ratio filling the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. In addition, when the disc is first spun up, skippable promotional trailers are presented for the DVD releases of "For Your Consideration, "The Astronaut Farmer", and "Music and Lyrics".

Packaging

The film is presented on an RSDL DVD-9 in a standard Amaray-style keepcase with no insert. The cover is from the "giant star heads" school of DVD marketing which is disappointing since I personally liked the theatrical posters which featured a smaller, but more striking image of Watts and Norton in a boat. (This image is partially reproduced on the on-disc art.) The disc menus are straightfoward and ergonomic. You get a direct link to the trailer from the main menu instead of having to go through an "Extras" menu to find out it is the only feature.

Summary

While the "The Painted Veil" tends to meander through its rather simple plot, it is worth checking out for the virtues of its performances and its beautiful Chinese location cinematography. The latter virtue suggests that you would want to consider crossing your fingers and hoping for a hi-def release, but I do not believe one has been announced yet in any format. The DVD has some artifacts spoiling its otherwise decent standard definition video, a well rendered audio track from a fairly subdued mix, and no extras beyond the film's theatrical trailer.

Regards,
 

Felix Martinez

Screenwriter
Joined
Aug 27, 2001
Messages
1,504
Location
South Florida
Real Name
Felix E. Martinez
Oh no. Another one of those Warner titles...and I was so looking forward to seeing this one...

Thanks for the heads up, Ken - very nice review!
 

Shawn.F

Supporting Actor
Joined
Oct 16, 2005
Messages
561
Mmmmm...Naomi Watts. Worth a rental right there. If it's good, I'll just hold off until Circuit City or Best Buy has it for $9.99. :)
 

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