Kitty (Naomi Watts) is a young London socialite. Her parents (Alan David; Maggie Steed) want to marry her off and invite Walter Fane (Edward Norton) to a party. By the next day he asks to marry her – which she does. He is a bacteriologist working in Shanghai. They travel there and soon, bored and not in love, she and a diplomat from the British embassy, Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber), begin an affair. Walter discovers the affair and gives Kitty a choice: she can follow him to an inland village where a cholera epidemic is raging or he will divorce her. When Charles refuses to leave his wife, Kitty chooses to go with Walter.
A community of French nuns, headed by a British mother superior (Diana Rigg), runs the local hospital and orphanage. The superior notices the distance between Kitty and Walter, and offers Kitty her maternal and life advice while Kitty begins to volunteer her time at the orphanage. Little by little, Walter and Kitty grow closer as they both change as they give of themselves to do good to those around them.
Based on a novel by 1925 novel by the British author W. Somerset Maugham, this is the second film version of the story (previously released in 1934 with Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall), and it is beautifully directed (John Curran; We Don’t Live Here Anymore), acted, and filmed. Edward Norton is one of the finest actors of this generation. And this is one of the finest period dramas I have ever seen. It sets up the reasons why people get married, the mistakes and bad choices people make for the wrong reasons, and how people can change. At one point the mother superior tells Kitty about her own relationship with God, and says, “When loyalty and love come together, there is grace.”
As I left the theater several other women (no men at this screening!) were chatting and asking, “What does the title, The Painted Veil, mean?” None of us could figure it out. I thought it might refer to the Chinese play at the beginning where the female character seems to be holding a veil to her face and perhaps getting make-up on it. If you know, please share it with us! Now I want to read the book…. This is an obvious awards contender. Beautiful.