In its opening scenes, The Painted Veil, based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, is about a love triangle among British expats in 1920s China. Spoiled, upper-class Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), unenthralled with her new husband Walter (Edward Norton), a terse, cheerless bacteriologist she married due to family pressure, is easily seduced by the philandering British Vice Consul (Liev Schreiber). But the real story is what happens in the affair’s aftermath, when Walter forces Kitty to accompany him on a mission to the isolated, cholera-stricken village of Mei-tan-fu, where they are drawn together and find purpose and meaning amidst the epidemic’s bleak destruction.
If this sounds like another of those sweeping romances between Westerners abroad, to an extent it is: there’s stunning scenery, the proverbial cast of thousands of locals, and a historical backdrop of nationalist agitation. But it’s more reflective, and has a greater immediacy, than one might expect. Filmed entirely on location in China, the setting feels real, not like some Hollywood recreation. And while Watts’ performance doesn’t have the depth of Garbo’s in the 1934 version, there are noteworthy performances, particularly that of Toby Jones as the maverick, gone-native Brit who befriends the Fanes in Mei-tan-fu.