Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Painted Veil (John Curran film, 2006)

Watching TV is spontaneous for me. When I am really tired, or feel justified in taking time to do nothing, I turn it on and scroll through the guide to see if there is anything worth watching. The result is that I often see bits and pieces of movies rather than being able to enjoy them in their entireties.

Recently, I looked to see what was airing and found that The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts had just started. I have seen most of it at least three times, but I have always missed the beginning. Naturally, I thought I would see what I had missed. I love the time period, its fashions for women, the contrast with the earlier Victorian lifestyle, the instability of the British empire at that time. I love the cinematography, the misted Chinese landscape, and I love the story.

The film is based on the book by W. Somerset Maugham. Before seeing it, I had heard of Maugham and knew that I loved the occasional quotation that I would find attributed to him (“Writing is the supreme solace.” – on the masthead, here) but had never read any of his stories. After I first saw TPV, I ordered my first collection of Maugham’s short stories from my bookswap. I have been ever since an admirer of his work.

For each subsequent viewing of the movie, I have told myself that I will turn it off when I get to the part that I know will break my heart. The strategy works very well for watching Titanic: once the water gets up to the ankles it’s time to go, before the children are being put to bed, before the old couple lies down with their hands entwined to wait, before the life boats are boarded. Rose and Jack can continue their romance behind the scenes without the ending.

Every time I see The Painted Veil, I get to that moment, when Waddington (Toby Jones) calls to Mrs. Fane (Naomi Watts), “It’s your husband.” Every time, I am seduced by the story into watching more, watching what can happen when love overcomes human failings and transforms us. Then it is too late. Someone invariably walks in on me, nose stopped up completely and eyes red and running with their excess of saline. This frightens the my younger son; the older one shrugs and asks, again, “why do you watch this movie? It always makes you cry.”

I have given up trying to explain that I watch it for the same reason Kitty Fane picks up the roses in the florist's shop, though, as she points out, they’re hardly worth the expense: “They will only be dead in a week.” The beauty is worth the cost, for the roses, for the Fanes and for the story.

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