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Film / The Painted Veil

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The Painted Veil is a 2006 American romantic drama film based on the 1925 novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham, directed by John Curran and starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.

Kitty Garstin (Watts) is a shallow socialite who decides to marry boring bacteriologist Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) when she finds that she's out of suitors and her mother pushes her to make the match. Walter's work takes him to Shanghai, and there Kitty settles into married life and embarks upon an affair with Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber), the married British vice consul. After Walter discovers the affair he offers Kitty two options: divorce on the grounds of adultery, or she can go with him to a small village out in the country where a deadly cholera epidemic is in full swing. Realizing Charlie won't leave his wife for her, Kitty accompanies Walter to the village, where she is forced to confront her previous illusions about Walter and herself.


  • Adaptation Expansion: The movie adds a subplot where Kitty begins falling in love with Walter for real, with Walter gradually reciprocating. This doesn't happen in the novel, which is generally more about Kitty's internal Character Development; while she does come to see Walter's worth and regrets her actions, she cannot bring herself to love him as a man. Walter, meanwhile, remains consumed by bitterness throughout the novel though it is ambiguous whether he manages to finally forgive her on his deathbed.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Walter Fine is more of a jerk in the original novel; while he is rightly upset and betrayed by his wife's infidelity, he is depicted as utterly consumed by bitterness and unable to forgive her despite her Character Development and clear efforts to atone, and while Kitty gradually comes to respect his better qualities she never really likes him, much less loves him. Furthermore, the novel suggests that Walter, in marrying someone he clearly didn't really know or understand, have some responsibility for the collapse of the marriage even if he was otherwise the wronged party. In the film, he gradually softens up as Kitty engages in Character Development and comes to forgive her, and they fall in love for real. He's also generally depicted as a lot more humane and caring, whereas in the book his approach to the cholera epidemic is more cold and analytical.
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: The main couple, unexpectedly so. In the original novel Kitty does regret her previous shallowness but never comes to love Walter romantically. Also Walter in the novel is definitely less likable.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Kitty is much more attracted to shameless flirt and womanizer Charlie than her devoted husband. Gradually subverted in the film, where she gradually falls in love with Walter the more she learns her true character, and comes to regard Charlie as contempt. Played with in the original novel; there, she comes to respect and admire her husband but cannot love him, and though she later succumbs to Charlie's advances again towards the end she is thoroughly disgusted with both herself for doing so and him for their shared superficiality.
  • Altar the Speed: Walter wants to marry before he returns to Shanghai, even though he and Kitty barely know each other.
  • The Atoner: Kitty gradually becomes motivated to make amends for her betrayal of Walter on realising both her own superficiality and his better qualities that she had been blind to. The novel plays this with as bit more complexity, as Kitty nevertheless continues to improve herself even after realising that Walter will never forgive her, but more for the satisfaction of her own self-improvement and discovering meaning in her own life than for his sake.
  • Bait-and-Switch: During the Chinese play, Charlie flirts with Kitty translating what the main actor is singing, which should be a sad story about slavery and a loveless future that obviously parallels Kitty's unhappy marriage. Kitty is moved by these words and asks if that's really what the song is about. He then confesses that he actually has no idea of what the actor is singing at all.
  • Batman Gambit: Walter is determined to punish his wife. After he finds out about her affair, he sets up a situation where her only choices are to follow him into a cholera epidemic or public scandal. He predicts her every move, and Charlie's, perfectly.
  • Beautiful Dreamer: Kitty stumbles upon Walter who has fallen asleep at his desk. This marks the point in the movie where she does start to feel affection towards him.
  • Becoming the Mask: Kitty starts out following Walter to Mei-Tan-Fu to play the devoted wife who can't bear to leave her husband even in the face of nearly certain death. By the end, it's true.
  • The Casanova: Charlie is implied to have had a number of affairs, Kitty merely being his latest conquest.
  • Character Development: In spades- Kitty gets to see Walter at work, and sees how respected and liked he is. In turn, Walter sees Kitty volunteering at the orphanage and sees that she isn't as shallow as he first thought.
  • Cool Old Lady: The Mother Superior, along with being extremely snarky and helpful with advice to Kitty. Being played by Diana Rigg does this to you.
  • Daddy's Girl: Kitty is implied to be closer to her father rather than to her mum. Her father introduces her to Walter, sends her memorabilia while she's in China and is implied to look after his grandson once Kitty is widowed.
  • Death Seeker: Walter. Kitty follows suit when she realizes her husband doesn't intend for either of them to live.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Played realistically. Walter has fallen in love with Kitty almost immediately. Kitty barely knows his name. The marriage is a disaster.
  • Friend to All Children: Walter is fond of babies, which makes him more sympathetic in Kitty's eyes and causes her to realize that maybe she has misunderstood him.
  • Going Native: Waddington can speak Chinese and has a better understanding of their culture and lifestyle than the Fanes, and lives with a native woman.
  • Happy Marriage Charade: Part of Kitty's punishment is she must go along with Walter publicly taunting her by pretending to be a happy, loving couple.
  • Jerkass Realization: Kitty gradually comes to disdain her earlier superficiality and frivolity and becomes a more compassionate, centred person.
    • A key moment is a conversation with Waddington about Charles, Kitty's former lover, and his wife. Waddington, not realising that Kitty had an affair with Charles, off-handedly comments that Charles's wife knows about his frequent infidelity and looks down on the other women as "second-rate". Kitty, who had always disdained Charles's wife and viewed her as a boring, dull-witted frump when compared to her, is clearly rather jolted by the realisation that she was actually considered the "second-rate" one in the whole dynamic.
  • Her Heart Will Go On: Kitty mourns deeply Walter's death but give years later she looks a happy and fulfilled mother.
  • Hidden Depths: The central story of the film is Walter and Kitty each discovering the other is much more than they initially thought.
  • Leave the Two Lovebirds Alone: At least as well as can be accomplished with a nun and a couple dozen little girls watching. But when the Mother Superior recommends Kitty play something "a little more soothing" she takes the hint and plays something to seduce Walter instead. Her choice of the song that was playing when they met effectively leaves them "alone."
  • Love Martyr: Walter married Kitty knowing how selfish she was, but he still loved her and thought she would change.
  • Loving a Shadow: Walter loves Kitty at first sight, though he comes to realize he has no idea who she actually is after her affair. She calls him out on this and he eventually agrees with her.
    • Kitty loves Charlie, but when it comes right down to it, he doesn't actually love her back.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Seen with the Fanes' neighbour Waddington and his Manchurian lover Wan Xi, whose family he has saved during the 1911 Revolution.
  • Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: Returning to the village by boat turns into this.
  • Old Maid: Kitty's fear that this and years more of living with her mother will be her fate drive her to marry Walter.
  • Parasol of Prettiness: Being an upper-class girl, Kitty protects herself from the sun.
  • The Plague: Walter goes to Mei-Tan-Fu to try and stop a Cholera epidemic from spreading. In the end, he is killed by the disease.
  • Romancing the Widow: Charlie tries this years later in London. Kitty shoots him down.
  • Scenery Porn: The scenes beautifully shot in rural China.
  • Sexless Marriage: When Walter discovers Kitty's adultery and takes her to Mei-Tan-Fu. They eventually make up, resulting in a Sexy Discretion Shot
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Kitty regards her son as Walter's child and names him Walter Fane Jr.
  • Stealth Insult: Waddington chats with Kitty about the Charlie Townsend, and nicest thing he can say about him is that he likes his wife.
  • Tactful Translation: The Funny Moment in an otherwise mostly serious movie comes when Walter, with his government-assigned translator Col. Yu, goes to a local warlord to request his cooperation in fighting the epidemic. When the warlord responds with an angry tirade, Walter tacitly invokes this trope to let Col. Yu take over negotiations. The Colonel proceeds to "translate" an insult into a tactfully-worded threat that gets the result they need:
    Colonel Yu: [deadpan] He said no.
    Walter Fane: He doesn't speak any English, does he? Tell him that's the most ridiculous suit that I've ever seen.
    Colonel Yu: [in Chinese] This Doctor respects you greatly, and you are right. It is quite a mess, this epidemic. But my superior said if your men cannot control it, then our army will be happy to come out here and help you. After seeing this place, it's so overwhelming, I'm afraid once our soldiers are here they won't want to leave.
  • The Unfair Sex: Averted. The film is pretty much on Walter's side and makes Kitty earn her forgiveness. Granted, he is depicted as a bit overboard with his punishment. The novel is a bit more ambiguous; while treating Kitty unsympathetically for her betrayal and the selfishness and superficiality it's based on, Walter ends up consumed by bitterness and contempt for her, and the point is made that he shares some responsibility for willingly entering into a marriage with someone who he clearly didn't understand and who was so utterly incompatible with himself.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Walter is this when he marries Kitty, but then Kitty assumes the role when her adultery is uncovered.
  • Uptight Loves Wild: There's definitely an element of this in Walter's attraction to Kitty.
  • Who's Your Daddy?: Kitty is unsure of whether her unborn child is Walter's or Charlie's, but Walter agrees to raise the child as his own, and ultimately Kitty treats the child as his.
    • In the book the baby was definitely Charlie's.