W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel, "The Painted Veil," turned an unpleasant woman sweet. Over the course of not many pages, a selfish, frivolous, and epically snotty young adulteress bloomed under the most toxic circumstances into an impassioned wife.
The new film adaptation of Maugham's book, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, doesn't go as far. Even amid an atmosphere of human rot, it's too elegant for its own good, a pleasing but pale Merchant-Ivory exercise that reverently strives for a kind of simple redemptive decency that Maugham found less triumphant than this movie does.
Adapted by Ron Nyswaner and well directed by John Curran , the movie doesn't begin with the book's initial flightiness. Instead, it's grave in the opening shot, telling the story of pampered Kitty Fane (Watts), her indifferent marriage to Walter (Norton), an accommodating doctor-scientist, and their expatriate life in Shanghai and the cholera-ravaged villages of revolution-era China.
Curran pushes the proceedings along at a clip as brisk as that of the novel's 80 chapters. Kitty and Walter meet at a party in England, after which he calls on her frequently, having plummet ed into love. Early on, Norton is a study in mannerly containment; he's as charmingly bland as you might expect a bacteriologist named Walter to be. Surprised by his marriage proposal, Kitty rebuffs him. But after she overhears her mother enthuse about her sister's engagement, she accepts Walter's offer, marrying him as a matter of sport, really, only to embark on an affair after they move to Shanghai.
Her lover is Charlie Townsend, the heart-stoppingly handsome government official, played by Liev Schreiber, whose big meaty face would have made him a silent-era star. He's gorgeous, masculine, and a touch arrogant. And his casting opposite Norton's sexless drip is brilliant. Walter is polite and doting. So, probably, is Charlie to his own wife, but what Kitty craves in him is the virility missing in her husband.
Walter catches wind of all this business, of course, and in the movie's most sharply drawn scene, gives Kitty an ultimatum. Miserably, she follows him to a Chinese village, where mosquito nets, sickly locals, and Toby Jones await. Jones, who gave a great performance as Truman Capote in "Infamous" earlier this year, plays Waddington, a lonely bureaucrat who befriends Kitty and exposes her and his regrettable concubine to the wonders of opium.
The journey -- and maybe the smoke -- gives the woman a purpose and, at last, intensifies her feelings for Walter, who's busy saving villagers' lives and remains understandably dubious. Kitty volunteers at an orphanage, where Diana Rigg plays the mother superior. By this point, the movie has turned into an expensive cup of tea. It seems unthinkable that the lethal climes of both the cholera epidemic and strife-torn China could feel as soothing as this, but Curran gives the movie a tony sheen. The film is a work of middlebrow refinement right down to Alexandre Desplat's silken score: How high the thread count?
Watts is as lovely as ever. But the filmmakers deny us the full blast of Kitty's narcissism. So her eventual selflessness doesn't convey the complete dramatic reversal it should. They seem afraid to give us a heroine whose repellence defines her, even if the object is to upend it, anyway. Now it's as if they think Kitty's beauty is her greatest obstacle to goodness. Anyone who caught Watts in "The Ring Two " knows she's capable of being repellent. Anyone who saw her in "21 Grams" knows she can turn that into a humanizing asset.
Curran is a talented director, especially where his actors are concerned. His previous movie, "We Don't Live Here Anymore," an adaptation of two Andre Dubus stories, was another literary adultery drama featuring Watts. "The Painted Veil" doesn't achieve the fire that characterized that film. But it doesn't aspire to either. The movie doesn't seem to mind leaving you with the impression that the corpses probably smell like perfume.