Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Late bait, part 1

Never is the separation between NYC/LA and flyover country more apparent than during Oscar season. To qualify for 2006, a film must be shown for at least one week in an LA theater. Studios take advantage by releasing Oscar bait there in late December, then let the rest of the country catch up in January and February.

The Painted Veil tells a classic story: boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy learns of girl's infidelity, boy forces girl to accompany him in disease-infested region of China. You know. It begins in overly simplified fashion, when Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a reserved bacteriologist, is visiting London and is enamored with Kitty (Naomi Watts), a silly socialite. Soon thereafter we have a proposal and an arrival in Shanghai. In a series of scenes, we gather that the marriage is a mismatch, and that Kitty will inevitably have an affair with the more charismatic Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), an important diplomatic figure.

This flimsy storytelling has a greater purpose. Walter volunteers to fight a cholera outbreak in a distant rural area, and gives Kitty 3 choices: join him on this doomed journey, suffer scandal in an embarrassing public divorce, or get a quiet divorce if Charlie also promises to divorce his wife. (It's a testament to Walter's cold and intelligent nature that this last alternative is really a non-option.) They leave civilization, and the rest of the film spares no details.

As expected, Kitty endures marital hell, isolated from society, intimacy, or trust. Eventually she rebounds by accepting her mistakes and trying to salvage the marriage. I'd imagine this story of a healed, resilient union (by W. Somerset Maugham) seemed universal enough to merit a big-budget adaptation produced by its stars and filmed in China. It's an okay film, mercifully kept to two hours, and charmingly old-fashioned.

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