Posted by: Billy Marsh | December 1, 2007

“As If A Woman Ever Loved A Man For His Virtue”

The Painted Veil

Well, this is my first movie review and endorsement on this blog and I must say, it is long overdue for this one in particular. I’m not as at home critiquing movies as I am with music and books, but that does not mean that they are incapable of moving me in similar fashion. Making movies is obviously an art no less than making good music; there are major differences in the quality and communication of movies such as common summer blockbusters and Jeremiah Johnson (click here to visit my list of top 5 movies in case you’re unfamiliar with this Robert Redford film). There is definitely a specialized skill, refined technique, and creative ability involved in bringing a story to life directly from the black and white of paper and ink and onto the color scheme of a projector and its screen. But, like all good art, and perhaps any type of art at that, movies communicate. They are not simply things that you observe and then make of them what you want. They have a communicative action to them which moves beyond merely setting forth a certain worldview, but is rather told in a way that is intended for persuasion. Still, what they communicate must not be reduced simply to a message or over-arching worldview. Just as in reading a great fictional work, you don’t simply put the book down and say that you only loved it because of its overall theme or underlying message. Instead, you rattle off your fascination with its characters, your passion for its complexities, and even its unapologetic realism. Using The Lord of the Rings again as a prime example of this fallacy, one must not walk away from reading the books or watching the movies and simply write Tolkien’s masterpiece off as just another story of good versus evil. This response does a terrible injustice to the author’s work. But, let me move on from this discussion and into the movie that has truly gripped my heart in a unique way and has also come into my life in a very providential fashion as the Lord continues to teach me about what it means to love my neighbor as myself (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39).

The Painted Veil is a movie adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s book by the same title. Maugham wrote the novel in 1925 which is also the time period that this fictonal work is set. The movie has a very intriguing history and is recounted in great detail on its homepage which I have linked for you above. I also will resist a too indepth review since movies are intended to expose you to their content on their own terms and thereby my own words and descriptions serve as a poor substitution. However, I do want to give you just enough information and persuasion by which you might be inspiried to see it.

The Painted Veil

The movie begins with an abrupt marriage between Walter (Edward Norton) and Kitty (Naomi Watts) in which Walter’s love is blatantly unreciprocated by Kitty. Walter works as a bacteriologist in China and immediately he uproots Kitty from all that is familiar and settles her down in a foreign land with a man that she does not love. In time, Kitty fills the void of a loveless marriage by means of an affair which she is unable to conceal from her not so foolish and naive husband. Once Walter discovers Kitty’s unfaithfulness, he volunteers to travel into inland China to a village that has experienced one of the worst cholera breakouts that the area has seen. Though Walter’s motivation for willfully putting himself and his newlywed wife in danger of a deadly disease seems to be the desire to punish her for her betrayal, one cannot help but suspect that Walter’s good-hearted nature and contrite sincerity would have emboldened him to volunteer whether or not he had been cheated upon by his wife. And thus, the story begins, or perhaps journey better conveys the unfolding of the rest of the movie.

There are three main things that I want to emphasize as the areas in which the movie absolutely excels in portraying. First, The Painted Veil does a tremendous job of simply displaying the selflessness and willingness with which people ought to love one another, and in this case, the sick and the poor. Walter does not shy away in the least bit from pouring himself out upon this Chinese village in order to assist them in suppressing the cholera breakout. Few movies, or I should say actors (Norton), are able to portray so vividly and passionately the genuine concern and sacrifice which Walter is ready to make so that these villagers can be saved from this disease. After watching this movie, one’s eyes are opened to the reality of life’s hard situations and what it takes to help others in need. Though Walter and Kitty are not Christian missionaries who are traveling inland to preach the gospel (which is actually who this embittered couple replaced in the village; the missionaries contracted cholera and died), the film has a very missionary feel to it, and thus displays some of the same characteristics in its characters, setting, and plot that are typical ingredients of a missions effort in a similar indigenous environment.

Second, The Painted Veil is a breath of fresh air in a world of movies where relationships are depicted in a stagnant and unconvincing manner. The marriage between Walter and Kitty is a brutal thing to observe at times; however, the movie peaks in its ability to distinguish between sexual love and what most would term as true love. Although the story is not underlined with any Christian theological presuppositions, I believe that the film moves as close to showing what the actual nature of love is, as is possible outside of Christ. Thus, the name of this post to me is the most important line in the movie and is perhaps the film’s climax. There’s comes a point when Walter and Kitty finally see each other for who they really are and then she begins to see in him what all along never mattered to her at all. She says the line in response to another character in the film in a rhetorical tone, “As if a woman ever loved a man for his virtue?” But, it is at this moment when the scales fall off of her blinded eyes. The relationship between these two characters is so complex, romantic, and profound that the commentator on the film’s website described the movie as a story about differentiating between “sexual love and spiritual love”. And, the journey of their relationship throughout the film is also labeled “a spiritual journey”.

And third, The Painted Veil has some of the most beautiful cinemaphotography that I have seen in a long time. The grand landscapes and rich, fertile China inland is a wondeful picture to behold. I was captivated by its sheer magnificence and some of the shots are quite breath-taking. If you love movies with majestic scenery, then look no further. The Painted Veil does an honorable job of opening up the natural wonders of China’s inland for all movie-goers to see.

I hope that this brief post has put it into your mind to watch this film though I have in no way done justice to the true force in which the movie comes across. Watch The Painted Veil and you will be reminded of the reality of life and challenged as to what are the things that matter the most.



  1. what “ehe scales fall off of her blinded eyes” means?

    sorry for my poor English.

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