The Red Right Hand

Sometimes The Greatest Journey Is The Distance Between Two People

John Curran

Edward Norton
Naomi Watts
Liev Schreiber
Toby Jones
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang

Based on W. Somerset Maugham's novel, The Painted Veil is a story of love, betrayal, subtle revenge, redemption and scenery... lots and lots of scenery. Set in 1920's China, a young couple sit in a field, surrounded by tall, thin mountains. They barely look at one another and simply wait for their transport to arrive. Whilst waiting, we are treated to a handful of flashbacks of London, from two years prior, as the lively, free-spirited Kitty [Watts] is being quietly pursued by the extremely shy Dr. Walter Fane [Norton]. They are quickly whisked into a marriage abroad that neither seems ready for but Fane wants to make her happy, despite his bumbling pomposity and inexperience. Kitty soon finds herself alienated in Shanghai but finds comfort in the company of fellow Englishman, Charlie Townsend [Schreiber]. As Fane becomes aware of Kitty's infidelity, he presents her with two options; either he divorces her and creates a scandal or she joins him on his volunteered work in a cholera-infested village, located deep in the mainland. Despite her best efforts, Kitty realises she has little choice and we are quickly brought back to the point at the start of the film. Fane continues to ignore his wife, spending more and more time at work in the local convent-turned-hospital. With only her neighbour, Waddington [Jones], for company, boredom takes over and Kitty decides to venture into the town.

This is a very simple overview of the first hour of this film and for that first hour, this is a rather exceptional and promising film; after that, I just felt the movie dragging on and on. I understand this is a faithful adaptation and that the book is filled with subtle moments that explain the final outcome but getting there is such a chore. Hour number two: Amidst feelings of uneasiness to foreign occupation, it soon dawns on Fane that his British manner of doing what is logical and necessary, with strict discipline, is not winning him any favour with the locals. After cutting off their water supply, raiding their homes for corpses and moving sacred gravesites, things get somewhat out-of-hand. Kitty also finds herself in trouble as rebellion-enthusiasts and young nationalists see her as the reason for the cholera, under the impression that the Europeans brought death with them. As the story plods on, Fane starts to remember that he once fell madly in love with his wife and Kitty grows up and thinks of people other than herself. The conclusion is typical but makes sense in light of all that has happened between our two leads.

Don't get me wrong, this is an extremely well-filmed tale of a warring couple but after a time, the boredom that Kitty is being subjected to, seeps from the screen and begins to infect those watching - it kind of reminded me of Empire Of The Sun. I think one of the main reasons for the feelings of audience fatigue can be attributed to the original source. This is a novel; very few people read a whole novel in one go, they stop at certain points, pick it up later and immerse themselves in the story when they have the time. Watching this film, I can understand why it has been paced the way it was. When thinking of how I would change or alter the editing or directing, I fall flat and agree with Curran's decisions. If it were cut, the maturation of the relationship would feel rushed and false. The best point I could make would be that this is an exceptionally good film if you want to see this film; I wouldn't go recommending this to anyone but as a critic, I cannot deny the aesthetic properties, the cinematography and the fine acting (though Norton just made me think he was reprising his role as Eisenheim from The Illusionist). Speaking of actors, I must confess I felt the slight pinch of my brow as Schreiber turned up on-screen. For a film about the English, you've done a good job casting anyone but: Norton is American, Watts is Australian (granted, born English) and Schreiber is also American; luckily, his character didn't last too long and once the story started the long crawl to the finish line, only British and Chinese actors/actresses were introduced. The scenery is beautiful (but relied-on a little too much) and I'm so glad that the time was taken to clear all the visas and working permits because to film anywhere outside of China would have been a disaster but it's not enough to save the effects of fatigue. Some may say that it's slow-paced because it's deep and stirring, with which I agree wholeheartedly but that doesn't make up for a lack of flashbacks that made the first half so riveting; pity.

Release Date:
27th April 2007

The Scene To Look Out For:
On their way to see the region's warlord, Colonel Yu [Wong] and Fane share a discussion about the nature of those inhabiting occupied land. It's an extremely simple scene that shows the understanding despite disagreement of foreign powers' meddling in other nations' affairs. Tired from riding all day, Fane pipes up and claims, "It's not my fault; I didn't come here with a gun, I came here with a microscope." To which Yu replies, "Yes, but it would be nice if we could do it this way without your guns pointing at us." It sounds odd but this is one of those issues that is very lightly addressed in the undertone but provides an important parallel to contemporary concerns. Relatively quickly, Fane starts to disagree with the nuns 'recruiting' new Catholics and making money from the orphans (despite it "keeping them occupied") and comes to believe that "everyone is here with an agenda."

Notable Characters:
I like a lot of Asian cinema, I work for a magazine that specialises on it; so seeing Anthony Wong Chau-Sang in an American funded film was rather rewarding. I realise that may sound biased but his performance was strong and provided a voice for a nation struggling with its own identity.

Highlighted Quote:
"I wouldn't touch that; they could have died in that bed... this can be your room"

In A Few Words:
"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned; sometimes this rings true for men too. Deep, poignant and well-paced for an adaptation but will only find popularity with a niche market"

Total Score:

Matthew Stogdon