The Painted Veil is like looking at National Geographic illustrations with a plotline attached. Set in China in 1922, every frame of this movie is a stunning photograph. The lighting is soft and bathed in a golden glow. The plotline has an excellent pedigree. It is based on a book of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham.
The story is not complicated. A serious physician and medical researcher, played by Edward Norton, back in England for a brief leave, spots and instantly falls in love with a beautiful, but vacuous young woman, Naomi Watts, who marries him out of a lack of anything better to do and goes off with him to China where he is helping to fight cholera epidemics. As the newly-weds get to know each other, it becomes clear to everyone that the marriage was a mistake. He exists only for his bacteria; she is interested in partying and socializing. She soon starts an affair with a debonair cad in the small British expatriate community, an affair which is quickly discovered by the young husband. To punish the wife, the husband forces her to accompany him to an isolated area in the interior, in the middle of a cholera outbreak. Predictably enough, she eventually, out of boredom, starts helping out in a Catholic orphanage and discovers the virtues of living for others; he gets a new-found respect for his wife, and they fall in love, for real this time, but too late to live happily ever after.
The story was first made into a movie in 1934 with Greta Garbo playing the Naomi Watts role. I have never seen that movie, so I can't compare the jobs Garbo and Watts did. I really like Watts's performance, though. She gives a strong performance, although not one for which I would nominate her for any Academy awards. I may be suffering from Edward Norton fatigue. I thought he played essentially the same early 20th century person in this movie that he did in the recent The Illusionist, about which I was unenthusiastic as well.
Overall, The Painted Veil adds up to less than the sum of its parts. My overall impression at the end of the movie was that I had just watched a "chick flick." A beautifully photographed chick flick but a chick flick nevertheless. In all fairness, the chick who watched the flick with me disagreed with my assessment. She gave it four out of five stars, while I only gave it three; three and a half stars, at the most, if the chick decides to really battle for the rating.