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Lust in the Time of Cholera

"The Painted Veil" is a simple story of people trying to survive marriage.

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Is marriage a plague? That's probably not what M. Somerset Maugham was trying to say with his novel "The Painted Veil," part battle with infidelity and part battle with a major epidemic in the Chinese back country. But it's a relief to sit through this new adaptation and still be able to think of it that way, or in simpler terms if you wish. One of the movie's strengths is that it doesn't seem concerned with what you think.

The story follows a fair middle-class girl named Kitty (Naomi Watts) as she settles in with the new doctor in town, the timid Walter Fane (Edward Norton). It's 1925, yet for Kitty the decade is anything but roaring. Walter is nice but only as exciting as any specialist in germs could possibly be. Kitty would rather wait for an exciting man to sweep her off her feet, but the pressure is on from Mom and Dad to marry before spinsterhood settles over her like a shameful black cloud.

Any reader of modern fiction will tell you that such marriages never go well, and even though Walter moves to Shanghai with his bride for his research, she is soon in the arms of a dashing vice consul (Liev Schreiber). When Walter discovers the betrayal, he shocks his wife with an unusual show of strength. Resolutely, he threatens a public divorce unless she travels with him to inner China. His plan is to help a remote village stricken with a cholera epidemic. Walter is an expert in the field, but this is a suicide mission, and they both know it.

"Veil" is in some ways an old-fashioned movie — a light period drama whose charms emerge equally from grand scenery and clever dialogue. It's slightly ironic that the preoccupation with infidelity, marriage and the stifling status of women recalls a time when Hollywood still made pictures with adult females in mind. But "Veil" isn't a chick flick. The good doctor's struggles to get the epidemic under control take up half the film. And there are surprising digressions into the lives of minor characters, including a British official who helps the Fanes adjust to their difficult new lives.

If the story lacks weight, if it's a bit predictable, a bit melodramatic, one can take comfort in what might have happened. This is the third time this book has been made into a movie, and this time was ripe for an over-making, turning a simple story of infidelity and betrayal into a grand treatise on life: in other words, it could have been turned into something that would have died right in our arms. "The Painted Veil" is comfortable with living quietly. As long as the characters are interesting and their lives seem real, it's fine that we walk away thinking whatever we want about them, or very little. (PG-13) 125 min. *** S

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