It takes a big country to properly frame an actor who likes to work large and pitch his characters toward importance — a principle of proportion that may explain why the famously intense actor Edward Norton devoted so many years to producing his version of The Painted Veil, a rare Western film about China shot, with official permission, in China. W. Somerset Maugham’s exoticized 1925 novel about a supremely shallow British society girl, unlovingly married to a stiff doctor, who deepens as a human being when the two face cholera in a rural province, is so fussy and lacquered a colonialist fairy tale that the fever-flushed saga almost accidentally cries out for movie adaptation: The story is so outré as to be infinitely malleable. (Previous cinematic attempts starred Greta Garbo in 1934 and Eleanor Parker in 1957.)
The third time, directed by John Curran, may be as close to a charm as a Maugham tale can hope for, although the story is still crazily overdetermined: To punish his straying wife for her affair with a slick English bureaucrat in Shanghai, the doc insists on dragging her to the disease-plagued countryside, where he volunteers to do good for the dying populace in a kind of mutually assured destruction by epidemic. The evocative scenery, captured by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano), trembles with an appreciation for China’s hard beauty. Indeed, the scale of the geography itself seems to awe the cast and unite them, intensifying the easy performance chemistry between stars Norton and Naomi Watts as middle-class Dr. Walter Fane and his restless upper-class wife, Kitty. Whenever the story gets a bit too blurry (there were bureaucratic wrangles over just how much actual political unrest and illness the filmmakers were allowed to show), one can always enjoy the interesting dynamic of Walter and Kitty damp with sweat in the humid Chinese air and quite loathing each other.
The awfully attractive stars play off each other against a backdrop of peasant hardship and colonial missionary good works (with that most worldly looking of dames, Diana Rigg, scrubbed to plainness and enjoying her wimple as a wise French nun) — and they’re bolstered by a come-hither Liev Schreiber as Kitty’s seducer and Infamous’ marvelous Toby Jones as the Fanes’ seedy expat neighbor. The always surprising Watts creates a woman at once contemporary and retro. And Norton, as a producer as well as star, concedes enough space for Schreiber and the effortlessly fascinating Jones to earn their own spotlights — indeed for China herself to assume a starring role, assisted by a thoughtful script from Philadelphia’s Ron Nyswaner and an enchanting score by Alexandre Desplat (Girl With a Pearl Earring). Kitty’s slow-cooking recognition of Walter’s lovable goodness may flatter the kind of misunderstood character Norton likes to play. But the real Norton here warrants the flattery.