Sunday, January 28, 2007

FILM REVIEW: "The Painted Veil"

I finally saw "The Painted Veil", starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. I didn't think I would enjoy it as much as I did. I did. I'm glad I saw it. It was exquisitely filmed, with breathtaking scenic views of China.

It is set in the mid 1920's, as China is trying to break from its warlord past and establish a national identity under the appropriately named "Nationalist" regime.

A cholera epidemic breaks out in China; doctors are needed. Enter an English 'lab' doctor with no clinical experience--Edward Norton--who signs on to work for a brief time in the Chinese city. There his also emigrated new wife has an affair with a married socialite, and the doctor decides to go to the hinterlands, where the cholera epidemic is more rife and spreading. The wife joins him--after being rejected by the lover in any long term arrangement, and as a revengeful part of a deal with the angry husband: off to the hinterlands or divorce.

The doctor, Edward Norton, is a very fine actor, and his acting of the role is appropriately withdrawn, 'Victorian' in his personal and sexual affairs, and monomaniacal focus on his work; he creates a vivid portrait. The wife, Naomi Watts, an equally fine actor, easily captures the pent-up, frustrated, yet-always-ready-to-be-made-to-come-alive wife.

The film is very slow unfolding, however. It starts with the by-now cool-to-each-other husband-and-wife traversing from the city into the beautiful Chinese hinterlands. During the trip it uses flashback (a half hour of it!) to establish who they are and why they are not happy with each other: their initial semi-arranged marriage (Naomi was getting long-in-the-tooth back in England, still single and being supported by Daddy; and Edward was falling in love with her 'at first sight' at a party arranged by Dad. The family presses her to marry him; Naomi concedes) and the subsequent urban China affair.

It takes the next hour for them to find acceptance with (and love for) one another in the hinterlands among the cholera and the dead: she gains respect for him as a crusading doctor; he finds forgiveness and re-activated love for her when she starts to work with children and the nuns as the local convent. If all this seems predictable...it is! In fact I said to my wife during the viewing: "its going to take an hour for them to fall in love"; and it did; almost to the minute. I'm not that bright; but the plot up to this point is formulaic.

It is only after that first hour and a half that the story becomes interesting; as the plot twists, and the characters become complex and truly involving. I won't tell you what happens next...I don't want to ruin any one's pleasure when they see it...but the rest of the film is quite wonderful.

The film script, adapted by Ron Nyswaner from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, is okay. Norton and Watts are a little more than fine. They do seemed constrained by the material; even more than their Victorian/Edwardian characters dictate. Their performances (measured against their usual standards) are plodding; their characterizations appear planned, presented.

Toby Jones and Liev Schreiber, another pair of very fine actors, give solid supporting roles. It's hard not to think of Truman Capote when one watches Jones (he recently played Capote in "Infamous"; he was cast not in small measure because he looks so much like the departed author), and watching Liev Schreiber kept reminding me of watching a cutout of Alex Baldwin...in the puffy-cheeked handsomeness and self-serving, narrow-eyed characterization.

The film is directed handsomely (but not profoundly) by John Curran. See it...but see it on a big screen if at all possible.

4 Comments:

Blogger john said...

the nytimes called schreiber the finest shakespearean actor of his generation. so who is imitating who?

as for watts (& norton), of course she plans what they are going to present beforehand. her acting was appropriate for the maugham character. cristina was appropriate for inaritu's 21g & betty/diane was appropriate for
lynch's mulholland dr. that is what an actor does. she works for the director, not the critics or us.

1:48 PM  
Blogger Mel said...

Just a correction: The actor from Infamous is Toby JONES, not Cole.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Cliff Osmond said...

Mel: Thanks for the correction. I changed the blog.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Cliff Osmond said...

John: You are right in correcting me RE my wise-acre comment about Mr. Screiber. I did not mean to infer that he drew his portrayal of his character to imitate Alex Baldwin...just that Mr. Screiber's acting in the film made me think of Alex Baldwin. As you can see in my blog item, I made a correction. Thanks.

However, let me respond to a couple other of your points: (1) The NY Times, while a great newspaper. is not always right...or the last word on anything. (2) I have never seem Mr. Schreiber in Shakespeare (my loss, I'm sure) but in the several films I have seen him in, while I am always am left with an appreciation for his craft, I miss his art; I applaud the mechanics of his portayal but miss his passion. Which leads me to another of your points: (3) although an actor can plan for a performance, that performance must always arise in reality like a piece of jazz. There must always be room for sponteneity within even the most narrow of parameters (which includes a director's requests). I like to express it: "You can prepare/practice for a game, but you can''t prepare/practice the game itself...in acting, as in sports, the game has yet to occur." While both Mr. Norton's and Ms. Watts's sponteneity is brilliant and generally luminous in most of their finest work, it seems lacking here...and I fault the material and the genre. To play a puritan, which is inherent in their characters in this film(and by your comments, part of the director's desire for them) constricts the arena of their passion, true, but in an excting performance a puritan's passion must boil even more heatedly within the pressure cooker of those constraints. I felt the flame was low for Mr. Norton and Ms. Watts in this film.

4:47 PM  

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