Thursday, January 11, 2007

INVENTING NOTHING

The Painted Veil is the latest dip into W. Somerset Maugham's literary legacy

Posted on Thu, Jan 11, 2007 at 4:00 AM

***
The Painted Veil
Studio: Warner Independent Pictures
Rated: PG-13
Cast: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Sally Hawkins, Toby Jones
Director: John Curran
WorkNameSort: Painted Veil, The
Our Rating: 3.00

Are you caught up in all the W. Somerset Maugham hype?

You're not? And you're not even sure what hype there is? Worse still, you're not even sure who, exactly, W. Somerset Maugham is?

Fair enough. It's not as if Entertainment Tonight has been running a special weeklong series about him. Yet, on another, perhaps more sophisticated, level, there's definitely something going on with this old-school British author.

Most recently, there's The Painted Veil, the new film starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton. It's based on a novel by Maugham, as was Being Julia, which scored a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for Annette Bening in 2004, and 2000's Up at the Villa, which starred Sean Penn and Kristin Scott Thomas.

That's three feature films in seven years based on books by a writer who's been dead for over 40. Even John Grisham isn't doing that well lately.

This cinematic trend doesn't even take into account that many of Maugham's more obscure books have recently become easily available, or that his plays are being performed more often. The Constant Wife, Maugham's comedy of manners from 1926, was produced on Broadway and in other locations ' including Los Angeles and at Orlando's own Mad Cow Theatre ' during the last couple of years.

Maybe E.T. ought to do that series after all.

The series would probably begin by saying that Maugham wasn't just an author, he was also a spy. Specifically, he served as a British espionage agent during World War I. His undercover activities became the basis for a collection of his short stories. Beyond that, 007 author Ian Fleming credited Maugham's spy stories as a key influence on his own. In a roundabout way, you might say, Maugham had a hand, or at least a finger, in the recent Casino Royale.

Not that he really needs any indirect accolades. Maugham, who lived from 1874 to 1965, was one of the most famous authors and playwrights of his day ' and reputedly the highest-paid. And although he is enjoying a genuine resurgence just now, he's always been popular in Hollywood. Over the years, nearly 50 movies have been based on his work, not to mention hundreds of television and foreign productions.

The new Painted Veil is actually the third Hollywood incarnation of the novel. The first (starring Greta Garbo) was released in 1934 and the second in 1957. Other Maugham works that have inspired films include Of Human Bondage (his masterpiece), The Moon and Sixpence, The Letter and Rain. The Razor's Edge spawned two movies, including the quite lame 1984 version starring Bill Murray.

It isn't hard to see what actors and filmmakers like about Maugham's work. His gift for description is impressive, and the exotic locales of his books can be alluring. Mostly, though, it's his characters, especially his strong, sexually adventurous female ones. Surely, that's what attracted Naomi Watts to The Painted Veil, which tells the story of Walter (Norton) and Kitty Fane (Watts), a quietly intense bacteriologist and his unfaithful wife.

A lot of the book reads almost like a screenplay, which is weird, since it was published in 1925 ' before there were talking pictures. It begins provocatively, with Kitty and her lover (Liev Schreiber) in bed together. Suddenly the doorknob starts to turn: Could it be Walter?

The film, unfortunately, doesn't have the wit to start that way. And, in fact, it's often slow going. (Then again, a lot of it is set in the midst of a cholera epidemic, so what can you expect?)

But the characters are extraordinarily well-drawn, and Watts and Norton both do fine, subtle work. After Walter discovers Kitty's infidelity, their quiet dance of recrimination and regret is, more than anything else, what holds the movie together. Norton's icy hauteur is so strong that his face settles naturally into a sneer. Watts' eyes, meanwhile, seem always to be searching for a solution that's forever receding.

The movie ends quite differently from the book, but not, all things considered, more happily. The biggest loss is the great scene near the conclusion of the novel in which Kitty re-encounters her former lover and, against her better judgment, again succumbs.

By losing that scene, the movie, oddly enough, becomes less modern than the novel. But not to worry: Maugham never really goes out of fashion in Hollywood. Sooner or later, somehow or other, there'll be another Painted Veil.

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