Idol Chatter

In this post-“Sex and the City” era, people dissect relationships a lot. There’s so much to navigate that some daters might wish they had been born in an era when there wasn’t so much choice–a time when a man saw a woman of marriageable age and asked for her hand in marriage. And once married, the two learned to love and respect each other.

But people who seek the romance in “The Painted Veil,” a new film starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, will have to pass through the obligatory purgatory of emotional torture, infidelity, hatred, and indifference before achieving redemption and love. (Additional spoilers to come.)

Based on the novel by Somerset Maugham, the story begins in the 1920s and centers on Kitty, a well-to-do young woman with an independent, modern streak, whose family has given up on her. The love story begins at a party, where Kitty descends a staircase and is spied by Walter, who says little, but ask her to dance. Her “why not” answer is an indicator of her lackadaisical approach to men–she would have danced with anyone.

The following day her parents pressure her about him, causing Kitty to proclaim that rushing into a marriage with someone she doesn’t love would be “downright prehistoric.” Walter shows up and asks her to marry him. Her instinct is to say no, but to get away from her mother, she accepts.

The pair moves to Shanghai, where Walter is a microbiologist and Kitty has nothing to do–it becomes quickly apparent that the spouses have nothing in common. When Kitty meets the English Vice Consul (Liev Schreiber), the two embark on an affair containing all of the spirited passion that is lacking from Kitty and Walter’s marriage. When Walter discovers the affair, he devises a punishment: He moves to a remote Chinese village to serve as doctor during a cholera epidemic and takes Kitty with him.

He takes the long road so that the trip takes two weeks instead of ten days, and denies her an innoculation against the disease. “I knew you were selfish and spoiled, but I loved you. And I know you married me to get as far away from your mother as possible, but I hoped there would someday be something more,” says Walter.

The process of letting go of her privileged life in favor of modesty provides the purgatory necessary for Kitty to be rid of her sins. Part of the purging is Kitty’s developing a relationship with the local mother superior, who calls her “pretty” and “young.” “I feel ancient,” Kitty sighs, in a callback to her comment about “prehistoric” attitudes toward relationships.

Working in the orphanage, Kitty learns about duty and grace and love. She sees the good work that her husband does; this leads to them overcoming their status quo marriage of peaceful indifference and find passion within the confines of commitment.

The alignment of talent, the spectacular locations, and the strength of story creates a most memorable, if saddening, film. And it will certainly disavow modern daters of any notions that relationships used to be easier. Social circumstances, wardrobe, and location may change, but at their core, relationships are hard because, as Kitty says during a fight with her husband, “People are unpredictable.” And this has always been our delight as well as our tragedy, even sans cholera.

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