Some movies I love because they are romantic; some because they are thought-provoking; and some because of their outstanding production. The Painted Veil offers all three of these qualities in one beautiful, tidy package.
Kitty is a happy-go-lucky party girl in the Roaring 20’s whose family fears she has missed her chance for a good marriage. She accepts an entirely respectable proposal from bacteriologist Dr. Walter Fane without realizing that she would wind up in backwater China in the midst of a cholera epidemic. Though Walter is quite enamored of his wife, she is not so thrilled with him, finding him far too serious and dull for her taste. She has an affair with a handsome diplomat, believing that her husband is too spineless to do anything about it. She couldn’t be more wrong. Walter says he will give her a divorce when her lover leaves his wife, which leads to her discovering that he has no intention of doing anything of the sort. Dejected and deflated, she follows him directly into the heart of the epidemic, all the while hating him for bringing her there.
Then things begin to change. Kitty becomes involved with a local orphanage and the nuns that run it, which gives her a purpose in her life that she has never had before. With this new, more serious mind, she comes to first respect and then love her husband for his talent and dedication to the cause. For his part, Walter gains a new perspective on his wife when he sees her working with and caring for the children. Kitty’s and Walter’s characters evolve right before our eyes.
The setting of The Painted Veil is definitely one of the main characters. I went into this relatively unfamiliar with the landscapes of China, and I was completely enchanted. The scenery is unbelievably beautiful, from the mountains to the fields to the rivers, and as much as it moves me, it moves Kitty and Walter and plays a significant part in the evolution of their characters. There is no question that they are changed for good by China and the people they meet there.
Ultimately, the centerpiece of this movie is the relationship between Walter and Kitty. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts have just the right amount of conflict to make their characters’ journey believable. I can’t say that you will start out routing for Walter and Kitty, because their characters actually aren’t all that likeable, but like watching a train wreck, you won’t be able to stop watching to see what in the world is going to happen to them.