Film Reviews


By • Jan 1st, 2007 • Pages: 1 2 3

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Provocative and highly emotional. Watts and Norton are sensational.

It is 1920 and free-spirited, aristocratic Londoner Kitty (Naomi Watts) flees her oppressive mother by marrying Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a no-nonsense, dull bacteriologist. Walter has fallen in love with Kitty at first sight, though she shows no interest in him. Regardless, Kitty accepts Walter’s sudden marriage proposal and they go off to Shanghai, where he is in civil service.

With nothing to do in Shanghai and Walter spending all of his time in “boring” research, Kitty becomes restless. She is frivolous and reminds Walter that she is only interested in playing games and dancing. He tries to please her. Kitty recklessly begins an affair with the very married English Vice Consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). Kitty is so careless that she invites Charlie to afternoon assignations in their home. When Walter discovers her infidelity he is furious. The word cuckold comes to mind. He has been betrayed. He will punish Kitty.

He offers Kitty a proposition: Immediate divorce or accompany him to a remote village where there is a raging cholera epidemic. He has accepted a position as a doctor and leaves the next day. Kitty refuses, believing Charlie will divorce and marry her. Kitty finds out that Charlie is simply entertaining himself in another casual affair. She has no choice but to go with Walter.

After a punishing and unnecessary two-week journey to remote Mei-tan-fu, Kitty is further shocked by their bare quarters and the dead bodies left everywhere. Kitty, like Walter, refuses a cholera vaccine. The villagers do not like foreigners and Kitty is given a bodyguard. The people do not consider Walter a savior but an intruder and a threat to their ancient customs. They do not want his help. However, he does have unwilling support from Army Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong). Walter finds that the water is contaminated. The people insist on keeping the dead for days in their houses.

Kitty and Walter’s only friend is neighbor, ex-pat officer Waddington (Toby Jones, so brilliant in INFAMOUS), who made a life in the village. Waddington represents the type of Brit who relinquishes the hierarchical English class system for the pleasures of an exotic culture. In a phrase – he’s gone native.

Since the conditions at the hospital are horrendous, the French nuns, who run an orphanage, treat Walter like a saint.

If only they knew this was a punishment for his wife’s adultery.

The Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) invites Kitty to visit and she soon realizes how valuable Walter is and the selfless work he is doing. Kitty starts to admire Walter, but he is not willing to forgive her. Kitty decides to help out at the orphanage and begins to make changes in herself and her attitude towards Walter.

These two are doomed. I loved it!

The Chinese production is rich and authentic. This being a period piece should not have a negative factor on the box office, since Watts is sensational. Watch how realistically frightened she is when she knows Walter wants to talk to her about the affair. Watts conveys, with subtlety, all the emotions of a woman trapped in oppressive circumstances. Norton also gives a finely-tuned performance as a man once eager to please his wife, shocked by the betrayal, emasculated, and then, revengeful.

Director John Curran, working from a script by Ron Nyswaner (adapted from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham), allows the actors (Watts, Norton, Schreiber and Jones) a lush space to express themselves. Some directors just do not care – how often I see it!* – but Curran shows a darkly emotional style of directing that will garner him the attention of many Hollywood actresses.

* It would have been great if director Robert De Niro had given Angelina Jolie the time to express – non-verbally – her disdain, bitterness, and loneliness in THE GOOD SHEPHERD. Of course, Billy Crudup knows how to convey suspicious distrust by just arching his eyebrows. Instead, De Niro gave himself the meatiest cameo. There is one moment in the terrific thriller THE DESCENT when a female character glances at the husband of her friend. It told the entire back-story and hung suspiciously over what followed.

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