Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Painted Veil

When the movie The Painted Veil came a couple of years back I really didn't want to see it. The poster made it look a cliched romance and even worse was the tag line - "Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people" which sounded like something lifted from one of those ghastly hallmark cards. (I have seen this quote at so many places, I wonder where is it from originally.) But then I did go to see it eventually (mostly because I like both Edward Norton and Naomi Watts very much) and I am glad I did because it is definitely one of the best romantic dramas of recent years. (Not that I get to see too many contemporary movies, much less romantic movies).

I had wanted to read the book by W. Somerset Maugham ever since I saw the film and finally read it last week. I found it satisfying, quite good at places in fact but ultimately quite plain and predictable. These days I just seem to prefer watching movies more. This kind of straightforward, naive and untroubled-by-doubts realism doesn't hold my interest anymore, however "well-written" it might be. The basic narrative is the same. Kitty, a self-centred, vain and shallow young girl accepts the marriage proposal from a young research doctor Walter, who is very shy, introverted and awkward, only because she is desperate to escape her oppressive home and parents. She moves with him to Hong Kong where she soon falls for the charms of a womaniser. Walter finds out about the affair and in bitterness accepts a job in a remote town which is reeling with a cholera epidemic and whisks her along with him (after she fails to persuade her lover to divorce his wife). The rest of the story is about her moral and spiritual awakening as she comes face to face with suffering and desolation all around her. She also meets the nuns running the local orphanage, who also help her get away from her illusions and finally stripped away from the painted veil of life as the title of the book has it, she emerges a wiser and mature person and a feminist too, which is important because some sections of the book can be seen as faintly misogynistic, at least by less charitable readers.

The main difference between the two is that in the book the character of Walter always remains in the shadow and we never get to learn about his motivations or inner thoughts because the third person point of view is closely aligned with Kitty's perspective. This was the main reason for my disappointment with the book, specially because of the movie I was much more interested in what was happening with him rather than Kitty. (It is probably just idle and shallow speculation but it was certainly interesting to learn that the screenwriter of the film Ron Haynsmayer is a homosexual and a prominent gay rights activist.) The film is also more aware of problems of colonialism, racism and western humanitarian intervention and has a sense of history which is missing from the book. There are also a couple of scenes, staple of commercial movies in fact - one chase scene in which Walter comes to Kitty's rescue and one other love scene - which are not in the book but somehow both fit very well with the story in the film and work very well. The on location cinematography is superb, in a David Lean sort of way (that is touristy, but good). Alexandre Desplat's background score is another highlight. It won a few awards too, alas one of the only very few awards the film won. It certainly deserved more applause and recognition.

A nice and informative article in the new york times talks about the various film adaptations of Maugham's books. I really want to see the original version with Greta Garbo in the lead. The article says it is pretty dull but with Greta Garbo it can't be bad, specially if she sighs a lot and is sad and depressed. I also want to see Of Human Bondage the film which first put Bette Davis in the limelight.


Madhuri said...

The woman's perspective is something very typical of Maugham. If we leave aside Of Human Bondage and Moon & Sixpence, all his other works talk through the woman. Since most of his books are based on real people Maugham knew, I assume he always interacted more with the women, which seems to be a Parisian trend (women throwing parties in honor/promotion of famous/budding authors). Take Razor's edge for example. Clearly the more interesting person there is Larry, but Maugham sees everything from Isabel's eyes - a woman who seems to be as hollow as Katrin.

Aashu said...

"Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people"......... You have yourself written that you have seen this statement at so many places...........One place that you might not know, I want to add to your list of such places...........It was also there in the promo of "U, Me aur Hum" a recent bollywood film. I don't know whether you have seen it or not but it is watchable.......a beautiful romantic love story in a bit different manner..........

Alok said...

aashu: I haven't seen the film yet but read about it. I will put it on my to-see list! Painted Veil came a couple of years back so it might be possible that they copied this tag line from there. Or as I doubted it might also be from somewhere else altogether.

madhuri: I haven't actually read any other novel by Maugham yet. Did start Razor's Edge once... thinking of picking it up again, specially after watching the not-so-great Hollywood classic based on the book.

The character of Kitty in the book is shallow (in the beginning at least) but it is quite well-drawn but yes it will be interesting to think why he doesn't put himself in the mind of his main characters... specially given the fact that Walter and Larry both are obviously close to Maugham's own worldview and his persona..