Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Painted Veil - Take Two

The Painted Veil seems to have a lot of the elements that could result in a decorative but trifling piece: it's set in the most gorgeous Chinese landscape imaginable, it takes place in the 1920's, one of the most trodden-over eras in movies, and it's based on a novel by some British guy who likes to bang on about relationships rather than have some nitty-gritty adventure story going on. Added to that, it was produced by its two co-stars and was something of a labor of love for one of them, Edward Norton, who labored indeed for many a year to bring this to the screen. Under these circumstances it might be expected to be an over-indulgent vanity project. However, while this isn't Indiana Jones and the Painted Veil, it's not Indochine either. It is a movie that fairly zips along to the extent that when we are faced with shots of Naomi Watts looking bored surrounded by luscious landscape, it is entirely consistent to the world of the movie: she is bored and this in part leads her to want something to do to redeem the mistakes of her life and pretty soon she is going to find a way to do it. In fact, the movie seems to reflect the male lead's disdain for anything superfluous to the matter at hand. Things are so telescoped at one point that what seems like an initial seduction scene turns out to be the pivotal in flagrante moment that moves us from reel one to reel two. Like the good doctor, the conversations are often kept to the minimum needed to move the story along. Norton's character is a true action hero - one who makes his point through his medical skills rather than by pointing a gun at someone (the kind of movie I would like my nerf-toting kids to see if it weren't for the ucky kissy-face stuff). Yet, he is not quite the stereotypical shy virginal character who falls for the vivacious bad girl - he reveals himself as not only capable of jealousy and violence once his bored bride embarks on an affair with a local lothario but also of a cruelly- calculated revenge. He is everything of the man of science though he seems capable of love too. Maybe it is not really clear why he should have fallen so hard for Kitty, though one can imagine an inhibited man with little experience of dealing with the opposite sex to be just the type to harbor romantic dreams of unattainable women. Of course in the best tradition this revenge turns out to be transformational for his wife who eventually comes to not only appreciate her husband's virtues but also to find a meaning to her life beyond rebelling against her comfortable existence. The movie even seems to resonate with current events - set against the time of the nationalist uprisings in China, it puts the story against the backdrop of a colonial occupation and the increasingly vociferous and violent moves of the local population to throw off their oppressors, there is even a local warlord who is appeased by the army and the imperialists as a bulwark against the populist uprising - sounds familiar huh? It's a compact and well-acted movie that utilizes its assets rather than indulges in them.

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