Throughout its grand history the colonial film has exploited the violence associated with the imperial adventure, the clash between Europeans and --- take your pick --- Africans, Indians, Asians, Pacific Islanders. When set in the 19th century, the great age of imperialism, it usually concentrates on the heroic actions of British (and occasionally American) fighting men in distant lands, which makes for exciting cinema --- Beau Geste, Four Feathers, Gunga Din, King of the Khyber Rifles, Zulu, 55 Days of Peking, The Sand Pebbles, and scores of others. At the same time, those films also dramatize the romance of foreign places and customs, the seduction of the visitor by the beauty and strangeness of another people, another land.
When they deal with the 20th century colonial experience, however, the films analyze more seriously the cultural distances between two civilizations and suggest something like a reversal of roles, the subsequent instruction of the allegedly sophisticated conqueror by the allegedly primitive native people, often against a background of obscure peril. The high adventure of battle and conquest becomes an inward struggle, an interior journey, the exploration of a different sort of uncharted territory, the tangled wilderness of the human heart.
In The Painted Veil, several familiar themes of colonial fiction and film combine to show the impact of the experience on an immature, self-absorbed young woman in a foreign land at a time of turmoil and danger. The picture opens in 1925, with a sequence showing the tedious and painful journey of an English couple, Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) and his wife, Kitty (Naomi Watts), to a remote village in inland China, far from any of the amenities enjoyed by the privileged Brit abroad.
A series of flashbacks establishes the shaky basis for the hasty, unwise marriage of the government bacteriologist and the spoiled socialite, and Kitty's subsequent boredom and loneliness in Shanghai. When Walter discovers her affair with a British diplomat (Liev Schreiber), he punishes her by forcing her to accompany him when he volunteers to help in a cholera epidemic. Compounding her unhappiness, Walter's risky undertaking threatens both their lives --- from the disease, from the predatory warlords, from a populace resentful of foreigners, even when they arrive with the naive intention of doing good.
As Walter works with a Chinese doctor tending to the sick and attempting to find the source of the disease, Kitty simmers with resentment; their relationship devolves into a barely tolerable state of mutual hostility. Virtually on a whim, Kitty finally finds a way to make herself useful, helping the nuns in a French convent to work with Chinese orphans, an experience that expands her understanding of the people, her situation, and her husband. When the mother superior (Diana Rigg) speaks to her of duty, faith, and service, she also learns something of the meaning of grace, which ultimately transforms both her spirit and her marriage.
Though the movie tends to sentimentalize and simplify the love story that essentially empowers its plot, it provides some satisfying sequences and images worthy of its grand tradition. Walter's discovery of a method to combat the deadly disease follows a pattern that reaches all the way back to Kipling's fascination with the engineers and technicians who built the railroads and bridges that crossed the Indian subcontinent; the obscure heroism of his medical work further recalls Conrad's novels about the imperial endeavor in Africa and the Far East.
In addition to the generally controlled and understated performances of Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, who speak with convincing English accents, an actor named Toby Jones conveys perfectly the character of a local representative of the British government named Waddington, a perfectly decent fellow gone entirely to seed in the great tradition, succumbing to the temptations and corruptions of an exotic land. Despite the quality of the acting and the pat predictability of much of the script, The Painted Veil works most eloquently in its beautiful silences. It returns again and again to shots of Norton and Watts traversing a river from their squalid house to the village full of the sick and dying, showing the lush, angular hills and the flowing water with the delicacy and precision of an Oriental painting, capturing in that midpoint the ambiguous emotional essence of the colonial experience.
The Painted Veil (PG-13), directed by John Curran, is now playing at Little Theatres and Pittsford Cinema.