Author’s note: This post was inspired by Netflix removing this movie from it’s watchlist this January. Some spoilerish material has been included since the movie was released over ten years ago.
In the 1920s, a English socialite, Kitty, agrees to marry a bacteriologist, Walter Fane, whom she doesn’t love and barely knows in order to escape her disinterested family. After an adulterous affair, Kitty is taken by her husband into the Chinese countryside to fight a cholera epidemic.Through the influence and friendship of the British deputy commissioner, an order of sisters, and the Chinese, the couple struggle to heal their past.
Detailing the wilds of the Chinese countryside, The Painted Veil films the lush beauty of China with affection. Even when depicting less than desirable situations, the cinematography never fails to charm. This is important since the dialogue is sparse, so the movie depends heavily on the camera work, direction, and actors. All are excellent with Toby Jones, as always, an excellent player who gives a standout performance.
Even before Kitty’s rebellious affair, she is shown to be a selfish, vapid, bored woman with no sense of purpose. Walter’s treatment of her is violent, though not in a typical wife beating fashion, and it shakes her out of her complacency about their marriage. At first, he seems determined to do everything in his power to discomfort her without being obvious enough to be caught. Kitty realizes this and while she initially refuses to reflect on what she has done, ultimately her experiences in China along with Walter’s disdain lead her to reflect on her sordid past.
The movie does not dwell overlong on her guilt, though. There is much to be done in the little Chinese village and the Fanes both end up working ceaselessly for the Chinese people they didn’t initially understand. They also come to a point where they can look honestly at themselves as people and at their marriage. In one powerful scene, Kitty explains to Walter that human beings are more complex then he believes them to be and that from the beginning she was not who he thought she was. In another telling scene, the camera pans to Walter and then back to Kitty who, while in conversation with the commissioner, murmurs her wonder that a woman could be drawn into a romance because of the goodness of a man. Eventually this is shown and more as The Painted Veil unfolds. A marriage is formed, torn down, built and finished. Most strikingly, the power of forgiveness is revealed. While brief dramatic apology scenes are familiar to film audiences, the transformative effect forgiveness can have when it becomes a lifestyle, particularly in marriage, is not so familiar. The Painted Veil is a masterpiece not just because its characters are exceptionally complex and realistic, but because it shows how one foolish marriage can change lives and transform the world with forgiving love.
PG-13. Young adults and up. Several love scenes and deaths by cholera. It is recommended that for a better understanding of the sister’s philosophy and some of the mother superior’s soliloquies that the reader peruse the book the movie was based on by Somerset Maugham. With this understanding, the movie’s ambiguous stance on the sisters can be clarified which would be useful to a younger audience.