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Warner Home Video presents
"When love and duty are one, then grace is within you."
DVD ReviewIn The Good German, Steven Soderbergh valiantly strives to recreate the distinctive look and feel of Golden Age filmmaking, but his far-too-clinical approach sucks the lifeblood out of his story. Director John Curran, however, better captures the classics' elusive allure with his stunning remake of W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil—and it doesn't look like he's trying nearly as hard. As meticulous and eye-filling as a Merchant-Ivory production—but without the inherent boredom—The Painted Veil sweeps us back to a bygone age when movies were lush, people were civilized, and stories focused on relationships instead of special effects.
Set in 1920s China, Maugham's tale brims with dramatic underpinnings—social and political upheaval, exotic customs, and, most importantly, a deadly cholera epidemic—but Curran makes sure such trimmings never eclipse the simplicity of the film's central conflict—an icy standoff between spoiled, empty-headed Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts) and her stiff, resentful husband, Walter (Edward Norton). The couple meets at a London party, and the smitten Walter impulsively proposes a few days later. A bacteriologist by trade, he must quickly return to his post in China, and though Kitty doesn't return his affections, she opts for a marriage of convenience to escape her cold, stuffy parents and experience what Walter promises will be a thrilling existence in Shanghai. Yet much to her dismay, Kitty soon discovers Walter to be more devoted to his work than to her, and when he ignores her constant cries for attention, she seeks excitement in the arms (and bed) of dashing British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber).
Walter, however, is no fool, and after discovering their affair, he punishes Kitty by forcing her to accompany him on a potentially suicidal mission to the Chinese inland, where rampant cholera has been killing natives by the hundreds. Though the tension between them is thicker than China's oppressive heat and humidity, the couple must try to find common ground in their remote hut, and salvage what's left of their marriage. They sulk and snipe at first, but the tedium of daily life and Walter's continued indifference soon inspire Kitty to abandon her airs and at last become a contributing member of society. She begs a stalwart Mother Superior (marvelously portrayed by Diana Rigg) to let her volunteer at the convent school, and as she slowly shifts her focus away from herself, Walter begins to see his wife in a new light. And ironically, the cholera that strikes down so many with such deadly ferocity becomes a strange antidote to the marital malaise afflicting the Fanes.
Maugham is a master of depicting interpersonal relationships and the complex ties that bind, and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner's intelligent script duplicates the author's tone. Terse dialogue prevents the characters from overstating their respective views, and allows the audience to freely interpret action and nuance. A smirk, sigh, or blank stare often adds vital subtext, and coupled with Curran's breathtaking shots of the Chinese countryside and probing close-ups, The Painted Veil quickly stimulates all our senses and holds us spellbound.
The performances are top-notch, too. Watts and Norton are intensely believable as Kitty and Walter, and their frosty exchanges crackle with tension. Neither character is particularly likeable, but both actors embrace their frailties, allowing us to identify with and appreciate their feelings and perspective. Watts especially impresses, bringing multiple dimensions to a difficult role, and proving yet again her acting talent can often rival—and even surpass—her beauty. Following in the footsteps of Greta Garbo (who played Kitty in MGM's 1934 version) and Eleanor Parker (who succeeded her in the inanely titled The Seventh Sin in 1957) is no easy task, but Watts defies comparison and makes the role completely her own.
Remakes rarely improve upon the original, but The Painted Veil is a notable exception. Curran's film finally nails Maugham's tricky story, and by combining the best elements of the past and present, the director makes this subtle, textured drama more accessible and enthralling than ever before.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Few films can compete with the sumptuous beauty of The Painted Veil, and Warner has supplied a transfer that lets us wallow in Stuart Dryburgh's exceptional cinematography. Colors are vivid, but never feel pushed; blacks are deep and rich; and landscapes enjoy plenty of texture and depth. Light grain preserves the period flavor, but never compromises the image, and lends the picture that lovely old Hollywood feel. Fleshtones look natural, and close-ups are often luminous. Good job, Warner.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The DD 5.1 track possesses subtle surround accents that enhance the exotic atmosphere, but most of the clear, well-balanced audio is anchored up front. The actors' diction is so impeccable, it's almost impossible to miss any dialogue, and the simple yet haunting score by Alexandre Desplat (The Queen) augments the drama without engulfing it.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring For Your Consideration, The Astronaut Farmer, Music and Lyrics
Layers Switch: 01h:09m:31s
Extras Review: A few trailers are the only supplements included on this barebones disc. At one time, rumors circulated that Garbo's version of The Painted Veil would be included in this package, but it seems Warner now plans to release that title separately at a later date. Too bad.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsOne of the best (and most beautiful) films of 2006, The Painted Veil at last does W. Somerset Maugham's classic novel proud. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton fully realize the author's troubled couple, and director John Curran evokes the sweep and style of Hollywood's Golden Age within the realm of contemporary moviemaking. Though the dearth of extras disappoints, the excellent transfers and performances make one forgive the omission. Highly recommended.
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