Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil (John Curran, 2006) Maugham's tough. A restrained writer of underlying passions and the complications of class and personality, he has had little luck in adaptations for the screen, which when separated from the civility of his tone, tend to look all the more melodramatic. Filmmakers have combated this in a number of ways when adapting works by Maugham. They either are as dry as dust, the juice sucked right out of them (The Razor's Edge, 1947), played to hysterics, overcompensating for the former (The Razor's Edge, 1987...with a "jokey" Bill Murray performance), or just the basic idea used and the rest transmuted to some other end (Hitchcock's "Secret Agent"). However, we're gradually catching up to him. With time, his themes have seen better, more fulfilling adaptations, but Maugham needs a director like Elia Kazan, who wasn't afraid to walk the fine line of good/bad taste. "The Painted Veil" has been lensed twice before--once with Garbo in 1937, and, as "The Seventh Sin" (more box-officey title) with Bill Travers and Elanor Parker in 1957. Both films emphasized the soap-ish, melodramatic aspects of the story, but this one is a huge improvement. It's obviously a labor of love, because it cost $17 million to produce and it looks like three times that much, at least. Filmed mostly in China, "The Painted Veil" tells the story of a spiteful marriage between a cold physician, and a spoiled society girl, who must adapt to a life of sacrifice and want in the Far East, and in the process find their priorities shift and their expectations shattered. It's one of Maugham's "too little, too late" stories, but I've rarely seen one better acted (the cast includes Naomi Watts, Edward Norton--sacrificing salaries as producers--Liev Schrieber, Toby Jones, and Dame Diana Rigg) or realized so well. This may be the best movie deal in years from a production and audience stand-point.

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