Miles on Movies

The Painted Veil

reviewed by R. Miles Mendenhall

I’m not sure what the title refers to. There was no painted veil featured in this film and I haven't read the book. That aside this is a very well made old fashioned story based on a Somerset Maugham novel. The images and feel are very Merchant Ivory, Brideshead Revisited. It is a remake of a 1930's Greta Garbo vehicle.

A flibbertigibbet wife is caught in adultery by her cold tight-lipped husband. He hauls her off to an exotic remote locale where they eventually bond due to hardship and a newly gained appreciation of each other. All of this in the context of late colonial China and the struggle in the nineteen twenties to take China back from foreign invaders.

In spite of the efforts of these middle class Europeans to help out during a cholera epidemic I couldn’t overlook that the mode of transport was sedan chair and rowboat. Here are Naomi Watts and Edward Norton’s characters finding each other while some anonymous Chinese peasant is either serving them, rowing them or several are carrying them using their backs and legs. Somehow the romance of the past doesn’t work for me when it’s all dependent on the sweat of the poor.

That said the character development of the young wife is a sight to behold. Essentially this is the coming of age story of a young adult. In that regard it is very well told and fascinating to watch. Be forewarned that Norton’s incensed husband’s treatment of his wife is a study in cruel emotional (and threatened physical) torture that raises questions about the patriarchal power of husbands at that time.

The karst limestone hill scenes featured here are the beautiful landscape of traditional Chinese art. I visited Lijiang in the Guelin area of Guangxi province in August of 1997 and I can attest that this film does them great justice.

A knowledge of the history of young nationalist China and the European Imperial incursions into China helps fill in the blanks of this story. It raises the question of moral responsibility: Are the agents of Imperialism and Modernization just the tools of larger forces? Or do they hold a personal responsibility for their role in carrying forward those forces, even when their intentions are to do good and to help alleviate human suffering? These issues are touched on, but are not central to this simple, but effective, love story.

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