"The Painted Veil": A period piece for the ages

John Curran's "The Painted Veil" is reminiscent of a Merchant-Ivory film, and that's no small praise. Literary period films such as this are too often dismissed as pretty pictures aimed only at the hopelessly bookish, as if it's not possible to have historical costumes and emotional resonance in the same movie. But Curran's film is like the best of those made by producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ("The Remains of the Day," "Howards End"): While its period details are precise and careful, its performances are stark and honest, with nothing prettified about them. In it, two people discover new sides to each other, both dark and light.

Based on W. Somerset Maugham's elegant novel, adapted by Ron Nyswaner, "The Painted Veil" tells of a marriage gone awry. Walter Fane (Edward Norton, looking thin and stern) marries society girl Kitty (Naomi Watts) in 1920s London. She has, we learn, been on the shelf a bit too long, and so she reluctantly agrees to marry a man to whom she is not attracted. Their early chitchat, at a party, sums it up. He, with hope in his voice: "I'm a bacteriologist." She, in a dead voice that's audibly looking for rescue from someone, anyone: "That must be fascinating."

They marry and move to Shanghai, where he works in infectious-disease research and where she quickly meets another man, the caddish Charlie (Liev Schreiber). An affair unfolds, as does a beautifully underplayed scene in which Kitty realizes that Walter knows exactly what's going on. He's not sad, but resigned and bitter, and he abruptly announces that the couple will move to a remote village ravaged by a cholera epidemic. A horrified Kitty wonders how to pack for what seems like a certain death sentence. "I won't need more than a few summer things," she says, in airy anger. "And a shroud."

And here, after all this plot, is where "The Painted Veil" really begins. In a green-hilled village that seems a universe away from the clatter of London and Shanghai, Walter and Kitty are thrown together, facing different kinds of death. This mismatched couple experiences each other anew, leading to changes both expected and unexpected.

And Curran gives his actors room to explore Walter and Kitty's transformations. Anger is given time to simmer, passion is allowed to flare and the beautifully unfurling flowers in the opening credits take on a metaphorical meaning.

The population of the movie is kept small; despite vivid work by Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior of the local convent and Toby Jones as the village's only other Englishman, this is a two-person tale. Watts movingly crafts a shallow woman who discovers a different self; Norton gives a beautifully restrained portrait of a man struggling to tear down the walls he's built. A thoughtful and beautifully mounted story for grown-ups, "The Painted Veil" brings the quiet pleasures of a fine novel, showing us that the world's complicated geography is no match for the terrain of the human heart.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Painted Veil," with Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Toby Jones, Diana Rigg. Directed by John Curran, from a screenplay by Ron Nyswaner, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham. 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content. Seven Gables.