The Painted Veil

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(2006) ★★★★

BBC2: Sunday 22 November, 12.05am

Frivolous and bored, Naomi Watts accepts the clumsy proposal of stuffy bacteriologist Edward Norton, mainly to be rid of her snobby mother, one imagines. But Norton’s in love with Naomi, and she knows it. However, the life of a lonely drudge in 1920s China was not what she had in mind. Even more precisely than his contemporary Noël Coward, W.

Somerset Maugham was a master of laying bare messy emotions. Maugham wrote his 1925 novel the year after Coward’s Easy Virtue, and – as in his other great novel, The Razor’s Edge – Maugham muses on life’s disappointments with grace and tenderness. As adapted, skilfully, by Philadelphia Oscar nominee Ron Nyswaner, the complicated matters of the heart become a kind of love in the time of cholera.

The acting is pitch perfect: Norton brings out the dark humour of the piece, and Toby Jones, as ever, is good value as the deputy commissioner. Beautifully framed on authentic mainland China locations, this is the best film yet by American director John Curran, and certainly superior to the stilted – and heavily truncated – 1934 version starring Greta Garbo.

Best to draw a discreet veil over The Seventh Sin, a 1957 version filmed in Hong Kong with Eleanor Parker. Even the director disowned it, Vincente Minnellirefusing to take any credit after replacing Ronald Neame. For anyone interested in learning more about this generally misunderstood author, Sky Arts has scheduled a documentary, Revealing Mr Maugham, for Wednesday 16 December. It includes interviews with Armistead Maupin and Ronald Harwood.

Certificate: 12

Duration: 124min

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