As in his previous films, sensitive literary adaptations all, John Curran's primary pre-occupation in The Painted Veil is the secrets and compromises at the heart of relationships. He has drawn his inspiration from a wide range of literary sources, with the raw material on this occasion coming from W. Somerset Maugham's eponymous novel, already filmed a number of times. Ron Nyswaner's script makes substantial changes to the original book, however, while preserving many of the best lines, even if they are attributed to different characters.
Most obviously, the film opens up the novel's perspective, which is focused almost exclusively on the character of Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), and reduces almost everyone else to a supporting role. This filmed version places her husband, Walter Fane (Edward Norton), on a roughly equal footing. The film also changes the setting of the early portions of the film, moving the action from Hong Kong to Shanghai (Maugham initially had to invent a fictitious locale after a colonial official took legal action around the time of the book's publication, but modern editions of the book have restored the original setting).
More importantly, the filmed version makes substantial changes to the ending, abandoning the original coda entirely. The new conclusion injects a dose of Hollywood uplift that Maugham denies his characters, while the final sequence showcases an independence of mind perhaps desired by modern audiences but likely unattainable in 1920s Britain. It also reduces the spiritual journey at the heart of Maugham's work to a more conventional tale of self-realisation.
By contrast, there is a satisfying addition in the form of a vein of commentary on the emergence of Chinese nationalism in the 1920s, a theme only hinted at in the novel, which makes but a fleeting reference to anti-foreigner riots. Curran is more fully invested in the idea of a story that takes place in China than Maugham ever was; the book requires a distant location, but often fails to move beyond a fairly simplistic exoticism. Curran delves a little more deeply into Walter Fane's motivations as a scientist, drawing a portrait that has more than a hint of Albert Schweitzer - not necessarily, these days, an unblemished positive. Fane, who makes no effort to speak Chinese, is persistently surprised when those local people with whom he works display wit, intelligence and cosmopolitan sophistication; despite his labors on behalf of those afflicted by a terrible cholera epidemic, he's condemned to remain apart, whereas his wife is ultimately willing to plunge in to local life in an more enveloping way.
The filmed version is perhaps most faithful to the original in its remarkable cast: Watts and Norton skilfully capture the nuances of class and social pressure that have entrapped Kitty and Walter, while there's a horrible tension to their interactions after the revelation of Kitty's unfaithfulness, with neither person equipped to discuss the problems that beset them. The smaller parts, too, ring true: Liev Schreiber may be a touch too dashing as Kitty's paramour, but he's convincingly caddish once things go awry, while Toby Jones mixes weariness with shrewd humanity as Waddington, the only other foreigner once the Fanes decamp for the countryside, and the cholera, in the aftermath of Kitty's infidelity; the great Hong Kong star Anthony Wong also has a nice, if small, turn as the local police captain.