- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

Star power can be a funny thing.

Use it poorly, and you get a wilted vanity project like John Travolta’s “Battlefield Earth.”

Yet Edward Norton and Naomi Watts wisely wield their clout, and extensive gifts, to enliven a third screen treatment of W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Painted Veil.” The actors co-produced a film that, by most measures, would be regarded by some as box-office poison. It’s an elaborate romance set in early 20th-century China that deals with a cholera outbreak — which makes “The English Patient,” by comparison, sound downright chipper.

But while that overrated 1996 Oscar winner barely corralled our hearts, “The Painted Veil” does much more. It’s literate in the best sense of the word and displays a spectrum of human behaviors in muted but recognizable hues.

Walter Fane (Mr. Norton) is a scientist who knows more about bacteria reproduction than wooing women. But when he fixes his eyes on the flirtatious Kitty (Miss Watts), he can’t help but act. Their clumsy courtship ends in marriage, partially because Kitty realizes her marital prospects are dim at best.

That leaves her ripe for a romance with the sophisticated Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber, Miss Watts’ real-life beau). Walter learns of the affair and gets his revenge by manipulating Kitty to accompany him to China to treat a village decimated by cholera.

Both characters are outlined in shrewd but unmistakable strokes. Kitty is flighty and immature while Walter’s kindness has turned bitter by the betrayal. The couple remains together but in name only. Their lives, and their relationship, change under the grueling conditions they face. Cholera is wiping out the locals, who trust their ancient mysticism more than the Western doctors poring over water samples to stop the outbreak.

The couple finds a curious friend in Waddington (Toby Jones, most recently seen in “Infamous”), one of those eccentric types who bring humor to otherwise stuffy features. Mr. Jones animates every scene while offering his own compelling contradictions.

Director John Curran fills in the couple’s romantic beginning via flashback, while the bulk of the story deals with their Chinese adventures. The landscapes are as lush as could be hoped, and Mr. Curran’s camera captures both the natural splendor and the dangers lurking within the suspicious culture.

Mr. Norton remains one of his generation’s finest actors, and his work here is consistently remarkable. His Walter is strong-willed and kind but makes decisions with an immaturity belying his station. Yet Miss Watts has the harder task, turning a flippant woman into someone of substance, a transition she handles with a delicacy that mirrors her porcelain beauty.

Former “Avengers” stunner Diana Rigg, unrecognizable as a kindly nun, assists Miss Watts in her transformation.

“The Painted Veil” droops at times, and it ends with a scene tacked on for a false sense of cheer.

Better we forget its miscues and celebrate its stars for putting their names on the line for such a sober, uncompromising story.

***1/2

TITLE: “The Painted Veil”

RATING: PG-13 (some mature sexual situations, partial nudity, disturbing images and brief drug content)

CREDITS: Directed by John Curran. Screenplay by Ron Nyswaner based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham.

RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes

WEB SITE: thepaintedveilmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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