Tuesday, July 17, 2007
The Painted Veil
I first got into the short stories of Somerset Maugham when I was in my twenties, intrigued by his strange mix of the sentimental and the cynical. A Maugham collection helped me pass the hours on a move from Iowa to Boston after grad school with a bellicose boyfriend, our chocolate Lab and a trailer of our stuff. On that long trip, Maugham’s "Winter Cruise," the story of a captain’s table of men conspiring to silence a chatty old maid by getting her laid struck me as somehow sweet. I was in that kind of a place then.
I reread some of the stories a few months ago and was put off by the racism, the sexism. I wasn’t in the mood to travel to the colonialism of early last century.
But a movie version of Maugham on Tivo? I’m on board! I love period dramas, or as our friend Brent calls them with a bad English accent, Pants and Possibilities! Merchant-Ivory, movies from Jane Austen, that kind of thing. There’s a tame bondage-y thrill in all that polite passion, corseted behind social mores and strictures. Fancy speeches, beating hearts behind the lace and embroidery.
The always interesting Ed Norton and the consistently good Naomi Watts both produced and starred in the recent adaptation of Maugham’s novel, The Painted Veil, directed by a relative newbie, John Curran.
I’ve been continually surprised by Watts – in Mulholland Drive, I Heart Huckabees, even King Kong. For each of these roles she milks her delicate blondness, then jumps over your expectations much as her steely Anne Darrow did backflips in front of the giant ape.
Norton plays a medical researcher visiting London on a break from his work in China who meets and quickly woos Watt’s Kitty, offering her an escape from a hopeless family situation. Bored in Shanghai, Kitty has an affair with a married government official (played by Liev Schreiber, Watt’s real life partner, who reappears in the film's moving coda) which Walter discovers.
Walter’s deceptive mildness transforms into something fiercer when he confronts Kitty over her infidelity. He offers her a choice – divorce him or accompany him as he doctors victims of a cholera epidemic in the rural provinces.
His offer and her acceptance bring up all sorts of interesting questions. Why would a party-girl follow her marriage of convenience husband into a cholera outbreak rather than divorce him – and why would he suggest this choice? Does he take her with him to punish her or to possess her alone in the only way possible? Is he mad with jealousy, desperate with love, intent on vengeance or some combination of these?
All these possibilities are revealed in Norton’s voice. The actor is always compelling to watch and in this film, he is especially interesting to listen to. “I don’t hate you, Kitty,” he calmly intones. “I despise myself for loving you.” Okay, that’s a little purple, but he adds shades and interest to a character who ultimately turns noble – and you know the doom that spells.
The macabre details of cholera include a rapid and painful death, suffered in the final stages with the horror and indignity of its victims turning blue. Norton and Curran are up for the challenge of keeping us focused on Kitty's love and Walter's humanity, even in the violent throes of the disease.
What was most interesting to me was to watch the arc of a marriage that recovers and reinvents itself from the lowest point – a contract for double suicide. Marriage can devastate as fully as it can save – Kitty and Walter’s thrashing against each other takes them deeper into the pit than either could sink alone. I couldn’t help enjoying the green idyll on the river as Kitty and Walter begin a newly found passion that is more precious for its brush with mutual hatred.
However. Maugham was a man and a writer of his time, yes, and yes, this story is primarily a love story between two Westerners, but the anonymity and marginality of the Chinese people is difficult to take. China is treated as a beautiful and exotic backdrop. None of Dr. Fane’s patients have personalities or identities. “This is no place for a woman,” says a character, ignoring (or worse) half the population. Curran frames the shots of Watts hurrying from an angry mob on her chair as if she floated above the rabble on her British superiority, rather than the work and sweat of the men who carry her.