It's hard to put a finger on what precisely doesn't work about The Painted Veil, a lush, sumptuously appointed adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel. The performances are faultless, top to bottom; the depiction of inland China in the '20s seems right in both the broad strokes of setting and décor, and the everyday bustle of a pastoral village; and the premise of an arrogant Westerner undone by his hubristic adventures overseas adds a dash of contemporary relevance. Yet while the film remains intelligent and transporting, a gorgeous travelogue into another time and place, it nonetheless feels like it's going through the motions, applying period gloss to a story that needs to be more tactile. That emotional distance seems especially curious from a gifted director like John Curran, whose previous films, Praise and We Don't Live Here Anymore, were as raw as a skinned knee.
Opening in upper-crust Britain, The Painted Veil finds Naomi Watts in the sort of situation that always affects well-heeled single women of advancing age: Her family tries to arrange a courtship with a man who doesn't interest her, so she runs off with someone else. Unfortunately for her, that someone else doesn't have a passion for her or for anything, at least judging from his brusque, closed-off demeanor. Played with minimal fuss by Edward Norton, he's a committed bacteriologist who drags Watts to a steamy, remote area in China where residents are dropping like flies from a cholera plague. Before they reach their destination, Watts' frustration leads her into the arms of a British vice consul (Liev Schreiber) stationed in Shanghai. By the time Norton and Watts arrive in the country, their marriage has already fallen to pieces, as they face what could be a suicide mission.
As the film progresses, the key revelations are really more Watts' than Norton's, because it's on her to discover that there's a soft yolk behind her husband's hard shell, and consequently be inspired to look past her own problems and give herself to the cause. But Norton's character has more flaws and dimension than hers, and is considerably more interesting: His courageous, selfless decision to make the journey to fight disease in China doesn't obscure or excuse the bullheaded righteousness with which he goes about his business. For all its vivid elements, including a scene-stealing performance by Toby Jones as a liquor-swilling compatriot, The Painted Veil doesn't get far beneath the surface of a contradictory hero who's simultaneously compassionate and cold. Over time, nobility cleanses his flaws.