Sunday 14 October 2018

Movie Review: The Painted Veil (1934)

A drama about adultery and atonement, The Painted Veil is bogged down by stiff execution.

The initial setting is Austria. After her younger sister gets married, Katrin (Greta Garbo) feels the pressure and hastily agrees to wed the earnest but uncharismatic Dr. Walter Fane (Herbert Marshall). He loves her, but she is ambivalent. They relocate to China, where Walter is quickly preoccupied with fighting a cholera epidemic.

The neglected Katrin is charmed by British diplomat Jack Townsend (George Brent), who is himself married but unabashedly lusts after Katrin. She cannot resist his charms, and with Walter intent on pursuing the inland source of the worsening epidemic, Katrin's marriage is soon in a heap of trouble.

Directed by Richard Boleslawski and based on a W. Somerset Maugham story, The Painted Veil offers a dependable Greta Garbo performance and a decent recreation of Chinese locations on the MGM backlot.

But otherwise this is a stodgy drama about a cold marriage, infidelity and attempted redemption, with unconvincing performances by Herbert Marshall and George Brent. The cholera sub-plot could have added some intrigue, but is poorly handled. Somehow Dr. Fane takes on the role of dictative commander and social disruptor, issuing orders to the Chinese military. Walter is eventually undone by his own preposterous actions, and it's not in the film's favour that his consequent punishment appears richly deserved.

Garbo lights up the screen whenever she is on it, draping her co-stars in long shadows, but she is not helped by a character who demonstrates ill judgment at every turn. The noisy recreations of Chinese culture, festivals, rural hardship and epidemic-induced panic are passable as an exotic distraction from the dull plot.

The Painted Veil cannot hide Garbo's transcendent talent, but neither can she lift the drama above the doldrums.

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