This film makes a good show of it, based as it is on a respectable Somerset Maugham novel and shot as it is on genuine Chinese locations, but it commits an unforgivable crime. The offense is one perpetrated by many pictures — perhaps most of them — and very often viewers don't even notice it. I've certainly not had an easy time pinning it down, this malaise of the common cinema, but I do believe I've hit on a reasonable label: not being notable.
I'm not wedded to the word "notable"; "exceptional" might get at the meaning just as well, or better. But, alas, from whichever angle you take, The Painted Veil is not notable. It's a 1920s period piece that drops an all-but-split genteel English couple down into a remote, cholera-stricken region of rural China. (The husband, a bacteriologist, plans to take down two birds with this stone: seeing real live examples of a rare disease, and punishing his adulterous wife.) Betrayal, surreptitious passion, terminal illness, the looming concerns of polite society, wide rivers, green mountains, sedan chairs; they're all in their places, all in a tidy 125 minutes.
But, cripes — to what end? Everything's propped up, nicely polished and tightly locked together, but there's not one element of note in the entire production. The world needs many things, but another semi-lavish tale of a societally-repressed Englishwoman thrown into distressing foreign circumstances is not one of them. The movie is also enslaved, as so many non-notable movies are, to a constricted average shot length and artificially hastened pace. (I kept thinking of the recent Notes on a Scandal, which was an uncommonly clear showcase of such afflictions.) What's your hurry, unexceptional films? Must you keep rhythmically firing plot points as if your audience stood defenseless in a batting cage?
That said, the material itself isn't exactly unsalvageable, but I'd hand it to a filmmaker with a more distinctive vision. Would that we could've gotten Kubrick's version of all this. And I think the movie has made me a fan of the eccentric-looking Toby Jones, who plays Waddington (snaf), the dying village's final remaining representative of the Empire. Unfortunately, that's not quite enough.