The turmoil of two mismatched lovers is set against the backdrop of social unrest in the latest cinematic adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's classic novel The Painted Veil. The couple, Walter (Edward Norton) and Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), make a quick match in London before setting up housekeeping in Shanghai, where Walter, a doctor, is working as a bacteriologist.
Norton plays Walter with a perfectly pitched reserve that expands but never quite breaks as the character confronts his wife's affair with a fellow ex-pat (played by Watts' real life boyfriend, Liev Schreiber). Walter met Kitty at a party and fell in love with her on sight, but the audience can see that she is self-absorbed and the tryst isn't surprising.
It's the remedy Walter proposes that raises eyebrows. He will either give her a divorce and effectively make her a social pariah, or she will have to follow him into a sort of purgatory—he's decided to take a post in the north of the country where there's been a cholera outbreak and she must accompany him. It seems that here she will either die or atone for her sins. Or both.
Kitty follows the stoic Walter across the country—a China populated with steep peaks and waving fields, peasants and colonialists, disease and civic unrest. Shot in a remote part of the Guangxi Province, the tremendously beautiful landscape has a deceptively listless quality that belies the effort required to live and travel in this land.
The epicenter of the outbreak is the town of Mei-tan-fu and as the couple settles into their new home, it's unclear who Walter is punishing more—Kitty or himself. More scientist than doctor of bedside mannerly persuasion, Walter is immediately immersed in the world of the dying where microscopes ...