They say that love can make you do stupid things. Indeed, The Painted Veil serves as an extraordinary demonstration of that adage. The third film incarnation of the novel of the same name by M. Somerset Maugham, it tells the story of Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a research scientist who specializes in bacteriology, and Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts), a spoiled, petulant society girl.
It is probably safe to assume that the novel's more leisurely pace gives a clearer explanation for the actions of its characters, but as is so often the case in film adaptations of books, complex decisions and motives wind up suffering from their truncation into movie speed, and appear nonsensical, or at best arbitrary. Therefore director John Curran's version of Veil doesn't credibly explain why Walter would want to marry Kitty, or why, when he discovers her adulterous affair, he would want to remain lovelessly married to her (but only if she will follow him to a remote village in China that is being wracked with a cholera epidemic). And further, why neither one of them will condescend to being vaccinated against the illness, seemingly just to spite each other. Most of us have probably done some pretty wacky and dramatic things when we are having girl/boy problems, but I doubt many would attempt revenge in the form of self-exposure to a disease that makes you shit yourself to death.
While the film is primarily concerned with Walter and Kitty's rather tedious relationship, Veil's backdrop of rural China during the '20s is rich with colors and horrors, from the cholera tents brimming with the dying peasants (illuminated by some fairly graphic bed-shitting scenes) to the natural beauty of the untouched land.
And while the acting seems a little academic, studied and reverent, Norton and Watts' passion for the roles shine through, and both give powerful, convincing performances. Research reveals that they have been plotting this project for quite some time, and that they exuberantly improvised much of the dialogue.
Eventually, as the film progresses, it grows into its potential as an unusual, awkward romance, but in the meantime, you'd do best to check your logic at the door and just enjoy the scenery.