Romantic tales can take many forms; some are sugary sweet with illogical storylines and even more illogical conclusions. The film The Painted Veil (2006) by director John Curran, an adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel, forgoes sugar for pungent truths. This story is steeped in the painful emotions of betrayal, resentment and the realities of marrying for the wrong reasons. Viewers are taken on a visually stunning and emotionally charged journey to the meat of the heart where love is not always gentle or syrupy, yet can bloom unexpectedly even when scorned and surrounded by death.
The Painted Veil explores the devastating emotional consequences of infidelity, and the difficult, if not impossible, road to redemption and reconciliation. Set in 1920s China, The Painted Veil stars Edward Norton as an English middle-class, lackluster bacteriologist named Walter Fane who lives and works in Shanghai. While on a trip to London he meets and quickly proposes marriage to the young, selfish, upper-class socialite Kitty Garstin played by Naomi Watts. She irresponsibly accepts his marriage proposal, not for love, but to rebel against her mother.
Walter whirls her away to Shanghai, where she quickly becomes bored and the two realize they have little in common and nothing to talk about. An immature and reckless young woman, Kitty engages in a sordid affair with a married British diplomat named Charles Townsend played by Liev Schreiber. Walter learns of their affair and is determined to punish his wife. He gives her two choices: either join him on a treacherous journey to a remote, cholerainfested village where he has volunteered his expertise, or endure the disgrace and embarrassment of a public divorce.
Kitty reluctantly agrees to join Walter after Townsend, whom she professes to love, refuses to leave his wife. As revenge for his wife’s unfaithfulness Walter makes the journey to the village more arduous and unbearable than it needs to be. The resentment between the two characters grows and festers like the diseases that surround them. In addition to the cholera epidemic, China is experiencing a civil uprising against British colonization and tensions are running high.