The Painted Veil Directed by John Curran
Warner Independent Pictures
Opens December 20
Given what an awful stiff Somerset Maugham can be, it's remarkable how many movies have been made of his uptight tales of civil servants sweating it out in British colonies (48 for the big screen alone). John Curran's fresh take on Maugham's novel The Painted Veil, from a crisp script by Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, is sober and delicate but downright buoyant compared to a dull 1934 adaptation starring a miscast Greta Garbo, and a 1957 remake, The Seventh Sin, that tanked on arrival. Edward Norton makes a pretty impressive stiff himself as Walter, a research doctor who, after marrying up and badly to bored socialite Kitty (a suitably brittle Naomi Watts), moves to Shanghai, where he immerses himself in the study of infectious disease, while she immerses herself in a caddish vice-consul (Liev Schreiber). Galvanized out of his insipid servility by jealous rage, Walter hauls the missus off to a cholera-ridden rural outpost, where the two gradually defrost in mutual devotion to duty. Bolstered by a strong ensemble Infamous's Toby Jones as a deputy commissioner gone native, and a wonderfully wrinkled Diana Rigg as a Mother Superior, speaking up for disillusioned decencyand by the ecstatic cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh, The Painted Veil lifts Maugham's story clear of its prissy, attenuated spirituality, and into genuine passion.