There is passive aggression, then there’s the smoldering rage that lurks just beneath the grim self-control of Edward Norton’s performance in “The Painted Veil.” As Walter Fane, a doctor betrayed by his wife’s infidelity, Norton quietly seethes, his eyes burning with the resolve of a man determined to exact his pound of flesh. It is a slyly understated turn, and Norton makes it speak volumes. Fane may seem mild-mannered, but with one fleeting glare, he suggests the cold intensity of a killer.
It is a cleverly misleading performance, essential to the tension that shrouds “The Painted Veil” in the early going. In truth, Walter is no monster, though he can be stubborn and cruel, and his resentment is not entirely justified — he is, after all, consumed by his practice and willfully aloof from his wife. When he first meets Kitty (Naomi Watts), he hastily arranges a marriage that is convenient for both of them. She is a selfish, directionless socialite born into a wealthy British family that is happy to see her go. He is planning a move to China, and wants a trophy wife for the ride.
It’s an awful match, but Walter, socially obtuse even in the best of times, is too preoccupied by his research to notice. Kitty is miserable, beside herself with boredom, and her affair with a slick British consul (Liev Schreiber) is the one thing that makes her feel alive. When Walter exposes her betrayal, his punishment is swift. He whisks Kitty off to the Chinese countryside, the heart of a deadly cholera outbreak. Does he care whether Kitty is exposed? Maybe, maybe not.
But something unexpected happens as Walter, distant as ever, struggles to slow the spread of the disease: Kitty warms to him. She begins to see the good in her husband, the bravery and concern he reserves for his patients. She determines to win him back, and the thawing process begins. That it comes as such a surprise and seems not the least contrived is a testament to Ron Nyswaner’s script, adapted from a 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham.
Maugham’s “Veil” has inspired three movies — something of a surprise, considering the dry, joyless nature of his prose — but this is the first that treats both its leads with real affection.
Walter and Kitty are presented as stubborn and undeniably flawed, but theirs is a romance made all the more convincing by its complications. It draws power and authenticity from the depths of dysfunction, and when they finally arrive at a mutual understanding that feels like love, the payoff is a pleasant relief.
These are wonderfully complex characters, fleshed out with a warmth that Maugham probably never intended by Norton and Watts, commanding actors who play off each other like dueling virtuosos. In the end, they deserve nothing less than each other.
The Painted Veil ***½
Starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Toby Jones, Liev Schreiber, Dianna Rigg
Written by Ron Nyswaner, based on the book by W. Somerset Maugham
Directed by John Curran
Running time 2 hours, 4 minutes