Love, lies and cholera

The Painted Veil: 125 minutes. Rated: M. Director: John Curran. Starring: Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg.

The Painted Veil With his previous films, Praise and We Don't Live Here Anymore, director John Curran has proved an expert at depicting the tortured terrain of love and sex in long-term relationships.

In The Painted Veil he tackles that theme again, but this time expands his canvas to a grand, almost epic scale; revealing a filmmaker mature enough to explore the painful dynamics of an unhappily married couple, without pulling back from the broader social and political issues that impact on their union.

Based on Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a vain, flirtatious young woman, Kitty (Watts), who marries a man she does not love in order to escape her controlling mother. Walter (Norton) is a rather humourless medical researcher, who whisks Kitty off to Shanghai soon after their honeymoon. Bored and lonely in the steamy city, Kitty begins an affair with the British Vice Consul (Shreiber).

When Walter discovers the affair, he's so filled with rage that he volunteers to go to a remote cholera-infected outpost. Kitty must accompany him or face a devastating divorce. Neither is vaccinated, so it's essentially a suicide mission, and he seems to take stiff-lipped pleasure in describing the painful manner in which they'll probably die.

Out in the village, among the misty moss-covered mountains, the mass graves of cholera victims are infecting the river and the rice-paddies. Walter works hard to contain the infection, and Kitty makes herself useful in the local convent orphanage, watched over by a wise old Mother Superior (Diana Rigg).

As they work and suffer, Walter and Kitty begin to take stock of each other, and the great pleasure of this film lies in watching their frozen marriage thaw into understanding, then companionship, and finally, into passionate love and devotion.

Walter, especially, is transformed over the course of the film, and suddenly we realise that like Kitty, we have moved from seeing him as a weak-chinned unlikable prig, to viewing him as strong, handsome and heroic. Desirable in fact.

Filmed entirely in China, The Painted Veil depicts a country boiling with internal conflict — and a growing resentment of the colonial presence. In contrast to Maugham's novel, China and its people are an integral part of the story, rather than merely providing an exotic backdrop for melodrama.

Beautifully shot by Stuart Dryburgh (The Portrait of a Lady) and scored with haunting piano melodies, The Painted Veil is a transporting tale of redemption that feels satisfyingly old-fashioned, yet wholly contemporary.


Official website

Rochelle SiemienowiczRochelle Siemienowicz is the films editor for The Big Issue Australia. She has a PhD in Philosophy and Cultural Inquiry with a focus on Australian cinema and globalisation. Rochelle blogs at




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