Der bunte Schleier (2006)

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Der bunte Schleier: Directed by John Curran. With Catherine An, Bin Li, Bin Wu, Alan David. A British medical doctor fights a cholera epidemic in a small Chinese village, while being trapped at home in a loveless marriage to an unfaithful wife.

“When I was nearly eighteen, I married. To the prettiest girl at art college. Lack of confidence vanished with virginity. I loved her with unbearable, blinding intensity. We painted each other with unquenchable desire. What could go wrong?u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eOur filmu0026#39;s title goes back to a stanza:u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eu0026quot;Lift not the painted veil which those who liveu003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eCall Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eAnd it but mimic all we would believeu0026quot;u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eShelleyu0026#39;s poem furnishes the title of Somerset Maughamu0026#39;s oriental love story. That classic, set in the 1920s, has three times been made a film. Our latest offering comes like five-year incense from Sinophile Edward Norton, with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and producer Sara Colleton.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eTwo people, whose characters are a million miles apart, wed in London. They travel to Hong Kong. Suddenly they can no longer play the game that society has set them. Facing their own true natures is a journey of discovery greater than geographical distance. Visually and emotionally restrained (given the passions and breath-taking scenery involved) the Painted Veil shines with intellectual integrity. If only you can get excited enough about it.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eBrilliant bacteriologist Walter Fane (Edward Norton) only occasionally gives way to anything as unscientific as showing feelings. Kitty (Naomi Watts) is warm and natural, but marries Walter more because it seems like a sensible thing to do than for any over-riding love. She enjoys tennis and nice things. Walter derides such superficialities. And Walter speaks only when he u0026quot;has something to say.u0026quot; Kitty has an affair with government official Charlie Townsend, a charming and seductive married man who u0026quot;made a science of popularity.u0026quot; Walter correctly labels her as stupid to think he wouldnu0026#39;t find out. Their trip to a cholera-infested village of Mei-tan-fu, a professional honour for Walter, becomes his journey of revenge.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eWalteru0026#39;s sense of superiority is impenetrable. Even though he vomits at his first sight of suffering, he finds a way to save much of the village from disease. Kitty is meanwhile wasting away through loneliness. They have yet to discover the real vibrancy behind each otheru0026#39;s mask. As they attempt to do so, the film challengingly asserts the contradiction of sexual versus spiritual love.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eAn emotionally unintelligent man discovering the tenderness and complexity of another human being, and a good (yet fairly shallow) woman appreciating her own potential – and the value of anotheru0026#39;s great mind. But the symbol of the u0026#39;veilu0026#39; goes much further. Norton says he wanted to u0026#39;lift the veilu0026#39; on issues facing China in the 1920s. u0026quot;If youu0026#39;re going to make a film set in China during the period, I think thereu0026#39;s got to be a reason for doing it other than the inherent romanticism of the location.u0026quot;u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eTo Kitty, the work of the nuns (headed by Mother Superior, Diana Rigg) is laudable, especially with orphans. Walter, on the other hand, points out that they also pay parents for their children so as to indoctrinate them with Catholicism. Every Westerner is a colonialist of some sort, fuelling increasing resentment with the locals. Walter, carrying his torch of medicine rather than the fire of armaments, believes he is u0026#39;neutralu0026#39;. He is somehow u0026#39;aboveu0026#39; the armed soldiers that he relies on. Yet his rationalism is shallow, limited to believing that if only people would embrace Western ways they would have it so much easier.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eKitty stays with Walter initially out of u0026#39;dutyu0026#39; but comes to question it when the Mother Superior says, u0026quot;Duty is only washing oneu0026#39;s hands when they are dirty.u0026quot; The philosophical challenge, echoed from Maugham, is whether duty and love can become one. This is the central tenet of the film. Walter, indubitably, seems to be following a higher u0026#39;dutyu0026#39; in saving people from cholera. Yet it is the experiencing of love in one form or another that gives meaning and fulfilment. That u0026#39;loveu0026#39; must be genuine but also under the domain of duty – else it leads astray. Walteru0026#39;s initial u0026#39;loveu0026#39; is respectful, exact – and only with the lights switched off. Kittyu0026#39;s is that of a gifted dilettante.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eThe performances are finely chiselled. Watts combines convincing sensuality and tenderness yet still gives her character room to express deep emotion later on. When Walter discovers her sexual liaison with Charles (played by Liev Schreiber, Naomi Wattsu0026#39; real-life partner), he goes into heartless-bastard-mode. Norton (who majored in history at Yale) produces a convincing portrait of someone who is sharply intelligent and as precise as a scalpel. His painful awakening to the fact that humans are more than complex microbes is superbly judged. Polar opposites of smooth sleaze-bag Charles and straight-as-a-die Walter are movingly adjudicated by Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones). He has more insight into relationships than the rest of them put together, yet are we misled by his persona? u0026quot;He is a good man,u0026quot; says the young Chinese woman that we saw him tussling naked and unashamed with moments earlier.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eGoing beyond what we believe another to be, whether we put them on a pedestal or in derision, may only be the first stage. Being away from familiar surroundings leaves nothing to fall back on. No painted veil.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eThis adaptation takes excusable liberties with the plot. It is true to the spirit of Shelleyu0026#39;s poem (I had to look it up to fully appreciate that, I think). It is a finely observed colonial-era drama that holds attention with a subdued dignity, quietly resisting the enticement to do a Merchant and Ivory. To the casual viewer it sometimes hangs between wasted opportunity and insipidness. But its themes are lovingly executed with skill and exactitude.u003cbr/u003eu003cbr/u003eMy marriage lasted precisely one year. We both decided to travel. If we had been isolated in a distant country like the protagonists of this film, we may have discovered a more genuine love. Or killed each other. Unlike this sumptuous historical and emotional travelogue, the games we play donu0026#39;t always paint a pretty picture.”


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