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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I missed The Painted Veil during its theatrical run in late 2006, and apparently Iím not the only one. Seeing the film now on DVD, itís inconceivable to me that Naomi Watts didnít get an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. Weíve reached a point where so many movies come out every single week that some regrettably never get the focus or attention they deserve. This is one of them. Hopefully, the DVD release (courtesy of Warner Home Video) will allow people to discover what a compelling and deeply meaningful film this really is.

Set in 1925, Watts stars as Kitty, an unmarried society girl whose mother has ďgiven upĒ on her ever finding a man, despite attempts to fix her up. To spite both parents, she accepts the proposal of a man she barely knows, a doctor named Walter Fane (Edward Norton) who specializes in infectious diseases. Right after the wedding, the couple moves to Shanghai, where he does his work. Their marriage is a little tenuous, considering they arenít particularly well acquainted; however, Walter takes it seriously and is outraged to discover that Kitty is carrying on an affair with another man (Liev Schreiber).

His response is to pack up and move them both to a remote area of China that is experiencing a Cholera epidemic. At first, Kitty resents being brought to such a dangerous area. Things start to change, though, as she sees the effects of the disease and the way her husband works to take care of people. Eventually, she volunteers at a local orphanage, where the Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) helps open her eyes to the true blessings and curses of the world. Kitty and Walter start to grow closer in the process, and the differences that once estranged them melt away, bringing them closer emotionally.

The Painted Veil is based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, and what I like most about it is the sense of relevance it contains. Period pieces, especially those based on great literature, run the risk of being boring on screen. It is sometimes easier to admire them from afar than it is to become fully invested in their stories. (If youíve ever seen a Merchant/Ivory film, you know what I mean.) This one is different because director John Curran (We Donít Live Her Anymore) and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) invest the movie with a lot of passion. Rather than seeming stuffy or like a travelogue, The Painted Veil has a real pulse. It sweeps you up in the charactersí journey from the beginning, and keeps you riveted from moment to moment. The message Ė that our petty gripes often dissolve when we become enlightened to the real problems of the less fortunate Ė rings just as true today as it does in the storyís time setting.

The two leads are nothing short of superb. Norton does right by a tricky character. Walter is a man scorned, yet the actor never makes him unlikable, even when heís not behaving at his finest. Instead, we feel the hurt and vulnerability that drives Walter to drag his wife into a disease-infested region. Watts, meanwhile, proves again why she is one of the best (if not the best) actresses working today. Over the course of the movie, Watts authentically transforms Kitty from a cynic to an optimist, a self-absorbed person to a genuine humanitarian. Itís fascinating to watch the two characters slowly change and come together under a difficult set of circumstances.

The DVD comes in 2.35:1 widescreen format, emphasizing the beautiful cinematography that makes rural China as much a character as any of the humans. There are no special features, save for the theatrical trailer. I noticed that the trailer featured a couple of scenes not included in the final version of the film; itís odd, then, that there are no deleted scenes on the disc. Even without the usual assortment of bonus materials, The Painted Veil is absolutely a film worth seeing. I think the movie should have been a bigger player in last yearís awards season (an adapted screenplay nomination would also have been appropriate), so Iím going to give it one of my own: Best Overlooked Movie.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Painted Veil is rated PG-13 for some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.

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