Lavish period pieces are in some ways a dying breed. It is very rare for a period piece to emerge as a serious box office contender in the modern cinematic landscape dominated by big explosions, superheroes, and robots. While I love all of those things I just mentioned, I also love a good period piece. These films cost so much money to produce, and with a declining audience for them, most of these films have to be independent, but these films aren't like modern day indie dramas or comedies that can be made for a million or less, most of these films require studio budgets, or a seriously deep pocket, so one can see why there are so few made nowadays. With all of that said, it makes The Painted Veil an all more impressive cinematic achievement and a genuine hidden gem.
Released in 2006 and starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, this adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel by no means breaks new ground. It's a straightforward story following a British doctor in 1920's China, who after discovering his wife in an affair, moves both him and his wife to a cholera infested village in the middle of the Chinese countryside to work at their hospital there, seeing this as punishment for his wife. Over time, the two reconnect and form a deeper bond than ever before.
It's fairly standard fare of old Hollywood storytelling, but this is not an old Hollywood film. This was an independently financed, exceptionally well made, and brilliantly acted film that arose out of the modern day film industry, when these types of films aren't being made, and that's what makes all of the difference.
During the '30s or '40s, a film like this starring major Hollywood players was a dime a dozen, but by this film being made now, you aren't seeing Garbo and Herbert Marshall, but rather Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, two of the best actors of this current generation. It's not common to see Norton or Watts in such an old-fashioned, period film, and that is a joy in-and-of itself. Then take in the fact that this film, unlike a film from the '30s or '40s, is now able to include some of the more salacious material from the novel, being able to depict an affair or the effects of cholera in a more visual way than most films in the Golden Age of Hollywood were able to do. All of these factors add up to make this a unique film for this generation.
Edward Norton and Naomi Watts both deliver one of the finer performances of their careers. Imposing their wonderful performances with some beautiful cinematography of the Chinese countryside, director John Curran does nothing fancy, he just tells the story and lets the emotions bubble underneath the surface. The film ultimately makes you believe that love can be found again after it's been lost, and that is an accomplishment that Curran, Watts, Norton, and the rest of the cast and crew should be extremely proud of.
This is just a fine film that grossed only $8 million, and it deserves to be seen. If you like period romances, fine acting, and good storytelling, then The Painted Veil is worth you're seeking out to find it.