The Painted Veil is Somerset Maugham’s by modern standards emotionally complex story about love in a hot climate.
Published in 1925, there was no need for the deep vein of political orthodoxy that runs through modern film and art in general like the Brighton through Greene’s famous Rock: obviously it’s injected through the film under the auspices of ‘bringing it up to date’. But it’s not all bad.
In John Curran’s 2006 movie, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts make the fairly handsome partners of a loveless marriage, although if there’s one thing you can say for Edward Norton , he’s not afraid to embrace the role of an at first less than attractive bacteriologist, even if he does morph into a heroic leading man. China is beautiful, Erik Satie writes very pretty vignettes, and Toby Jones is a great character actor. But the 21st Century sanitisation of Maugham’s acerbic piece, which takes in unrequited love, bitter hatred, general arkwardness and hateful sex in the way only a 1920s book about conventional people written by a screaming homosexual can, is bloody depressing and totally pointless.
Maugham’s Painted Veil seems to have been drawn from a real Hong Kong society couple, the Fanes, who sued his first publisher for the then grand sum of £250. In the book, Walter Fane is a smitten intellectual who falls hopelessly for shallow and beautiful Kitty – who, in a cracking Maugham insight into the sex he sympathised with and knew so much more about than the average bloke for obvious reasons – marries him simply to outdo her sister.
The accident soon happens in the form of Kitty spurning her adoring hubby and spreading ‘em gleefully wide for a hunky, married assistant colonial gadabout who, if the second lawsuit to hit Maugham was anything to go by, may have been based on some turn of the Century stud revelling in the name of AGM Fletcher.
Walter finds out, is crushed, and takes his vengeance by threatening divorce and scandal unless his pretty socialite wife follows him into the depths of a Cholera epidemic.
This is where the action of the film takes place, and it’s also where the obligatory veil of saintliness and all conquering female wisdom is clumsily thrown all over Kitty who, in growing up and realising what a wonderful chap her husband is in the wider scheme of things, gets to deliver previously unheard of lines about the world according to girls, to which Walter dutifully agrees. This is the depressing bit, and Maugham hardly needs this overkill, as he’s always overwhelmingly behind the ladies team anyway, which is probably why when you do occasionally find people old enough to still have him stacked on the shelves, they’re invariably old ladies rather than old men.
Anyway, we all know people die horribly in Cholera epidemics and so it all goes.
It’s not a bad movie by any means. If you didn’t know it was based on a better book, it would be all the more impressive. But it is, so after you’ve watched it free online, do yourself a favour and splash out £3.50 on Amazon for the original.
The book blows the movie away.