Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Once Upon A Time In China- Somerset Maugham’s “Painted Veil"- A Film Review

Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for the film, The Painted Veil.

DVD Review

The Painted Veil, starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, Warner, 2006

Several years ago I reviewed a film, Reds, about the torrid love affair between pre-World War I radical journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant where the Russian revolution of 1917 was used a backdrop for much of the story line. I commented then that that approach had the focus in reverse of what was compelling about the film, the love affair small against the backdrop of the great historic event that swept the pair up in its wake. I then stepped back and went on to tip my hat to the right of an artist to use whatever creative license was at hand in order to tell his or her story. Those same sentiments apply here where the film under review, a film based on British author W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name, The Painted Veil, tells the story of another tortured love affair set against the backdrop of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. Except here the revolution is even more of a background echo.

Of course the period in question, in the aftermath of the decimation of the flower of British youth of all classes in the devastation of World War I, is the period of the slow decline of the British Empire. That empire however still included a not unimportant outpost in tumultuous China. And the bulk of this story takes place there. And a rather old-fashioned Victorian story it is. A younger daughter of the upper-middle class under pressure to get married (and married properly, but mainly married), played by Naomi Watts, and a British civil servant doctor stationed in that British outpost in Shanghai and in need of a wife, played by Edward Norton, meet in London, get married despite barely knowing each other and leave for China. However , as is plain, this is not a marriage made in heaven, no way. Like many such arrangements it is merely a matter of convenience.

And that mismatch, that inevitable tension, is just the kind of plot line that Maugham was good at in previous efforts of his that I have viewed (and also read) The Razor’s Edge and the more famous Of Human Bondage. The pair are trapped in a no man’s land so, of course, someone has to stray off the reservation. In this case Ms. Watts has an affair with another British civil servant in order to get out from under. Said British civil servant already is married, very married, and in no mood to get divorced. Such stories clutter all of literature although not all are filled with perfidious civil servants with meal ticket wives as an excuse.

Naturally Mr. Norton stumbles onto the affair, ruefully offers a divorce under conditions that cannot be met, and so the unhappy couple are held together by some unholy glue as they are off to the outback in order to stem a cholera epidemic. And here is where Maugham’s plot line shines. Through a very tortured set of ups and downs they actually come to under stand and love each other, although in the end it is only for one bright moment. Thus Maugham is forgiven, just this minute, for back-dropping the Chinese revolution. This is strictly an old-fashioned love story that may not appeal to the more modern sensibility, but it should.

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