In the dark
Several times in The Painted Veil, a character seen in close-up reacts to a perplexing development with the barest hint of a smile. Each of those near-smiles appears and disappears so quickly that you wonder not only what that barely registering (and quickly suppressed?) grin might have meant, but also whether it happened at all.
Moments like that are an indication of the subtlety and intelligence of this adaptation of an old W. Somerset Maugham novel, but they are also emblematic of a film whose spectacular visual surfaces and striking performances tend to conceal as much as they reveal. While deceptive appearances and muddled motives are very much to the point here, this oddly ambitious mixture of large and rather conventional emotions with small, fleeting, offbeat insights succeeds rather erratically, at best.
Edward Norton and Naomi Watts bring deflected allure and a brave sort of restraint to the central characters, Walter and Kitty Fane, a pair of mismatched, newlywed Brits doing medical/missionary work in the turmoil of China, circa 1925. Their impulsively conceived marriage seems doomed from the start, but neither, as it turns out, will be easily brought down by their respective delusions and disillusionments.
A certain slow-to-emerge moral and emotional resourcefulness is the most interesting thing about these two and their story. But that discovery develops so gradually and in such sidelong fashion that you might not cop to it until very late in the action, or maybe even not at all.
The herky-jerky pattern of broad ironies and nearly opaque subtleties extends into the secondary characters and a supporting cast of considerable interest, including Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior at a Catholic mission and Anthony Wong Chau-Sang as Col. Yu, the Fanes’ ambivalent military protector.
Liev Schreiber is effectively handsome and devious as the wealthy Brit with whom Kitty has a temporarily liberating fling. And, perhaps best of all, Toby Jones is both dissolute and strangely wise as the seedy British diplomat who attaches himself to the Fanes.