It’s no surprise that one of the best scenes in the latest and third film iteration of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Painted Veil” doesn’t happen in the book. It’s the 1920s, and as China seethes with revolutionary unrest and cholera, an unhappily married British couple, played by Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, drift into a new state of coexistence, carried aloft on opium smoke and their newly liberated desire. It isn’t Maugham, but it’s mildly steamy and pleasurable, and it gives Toby Jones, who had the unhappy task of playing Truman Capote in the most recent Capote film, the chance to prove that he can do that decadent British thing just as well as Jeremy Irons. And he can.
First published in 1925, “The Painted Veil” recounts the moral awakening of a vain, careless young woman, Kitty (Ms. Watts), who has been raised for a life of abject uselessness. Thrown into a panic after her younger sister marries, and encouraged by her revolting mother, Kitty hastily marries a bacteriologist, Walter Fane (Mr. Norton) and moves with him to Shanghai. The marriage is unhappy, and in time Kitty falls into the arms of a married charmer, Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber).
The affair brings her to life, and then close to death after Walter discovers her deception and sweeps them off to the countryside plagued by a cholera epidemic. Mr. Jones plays the last white man in the region; Diana Rigg, of all people, plays a nun.
In the 1920s the Chinese backdrop gave Maugham’s story its whiff of exoticism (if not for Chinese readers); these days it’s the overwrought bedroom panting, the social reserve and Kitty’s apparent lack of choices that seem so foreign, like dispatches from some dying planet. This damp fog of repression that informs each personal gesture, every social decision, is also what makes the story seem so unlikely for modern adaptation, particularly when, as is the case here, it hasn’t been refitted with a contemporary hook or allegory for audiences who wouldn’t know Maugham from Edna Ferber. Instead, as nicely directed by John Curran and adapted to the screen by Ron Nyswaner, this version of the story lulls you by turning Maugham’s distaff bildungsroman into a fine romance.
Even better, the new film gives us ample opportunity to spend time with Ms. Watts, whose remarkable talent helps keep movie faith and love alive, even in the tinniest, tiniest vehicles. This version of “The Painted Veil” has been transparently adapted to flatter its leading man, who coaxed the film into existence over a number of years and, with Ms. Watts, serves as one of its producers.
Dry as dust on the page and nearly as hard to grab hold of, Walter registers as a far more robust character on the screen. The novel centers on Kitty and contains large swaths of her cogitating and fretting by way of the third person narration, but the film opens up the story to embrace her and Walter more equally.
An inveterate stealer and masticator of scenes, Mr. Norton is very fine here, especially early on, before his billing gets the better of the story and he begins riding around heroically on horseback. When Walter confronts Kitty with her betrayal, he grabs her arm and with bloodcurdling quiet threatens to strangle her if she interrupts him. Again, this isn’t Maugham; it’s an American actor having his way with a character, beautifully. The British restraint, which Maugham conveys with pages of speeches and even a tiny bow, boils inside this American body like a deep and molten violence. Whether through craft or constitution, Mr. Norton invests Walter with a petty cruelty that makes his character’s emotional thaw and Kitty’s predicament all the more poignant.
Ms. Watts gives Mr. Norton plenty of room and still manages to have her way with “The Painted Veil.” Mr. Curran, who directed her in the film “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” doesn’t crowd her. We discover Kitty from a distance (much as the character discovers herself), sitting forlornly against an expanse of shockingly bright green countryside and, in flashback, walking across a crowded party with her nose in the air, turned away from earthly matters and the civil-service scientist hovering in the wings.
Ms. Watts keeps that nose in the air far longer than most actresses would dare. She risks our love and earns our awe, ensuring that we never lose sight of the woman even when the film almost does.