(out of 5)
An old-fashioned movie that gives the “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” crowd something to cheer for, and more cynical, modern audiences something deep to sink their teeth into. Ron Nyswaner skillfully adapts W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, previously made as a Greta Garbo vehicle in 1934, fleshing out a fascinating relationship between its two leads set against a gorgeous backdrop of a world in transition. Naomi Watts is a spoiled London socialite who marries a madly enamored but boring doctor (Edward Norton) in order to get away from her overbearing mother. He immediately whisks her off to China, where her wandering eye and thirst for adventure sees her falling into an affair with the caddish Vice-Consul (Liev Schreiber) of Shanghai. Norton’s offense at being cuckolded prompts him to offer her an ultimatum: either come to a remote cholera-afflicted village with him and be his comfort while he works to save the people there, or go home in shame as a divorced woman accused of adultery. She opts for the first, and in doing so embarks on an adventure of the heart that sees her expand her knowledge of the world and mature into a responsible person. Norton is so incredibly appealing in the role that it’s a shame his obviously put-on British accent is as distracting as it is, but he has wonderful chemistry with the fascinating Watts, who shines in the lead role. Aside from the actors, however, the film is an exquisite work of art: it moves along at a snail’s pace, not in such a way as to be boring but allows the spectator to really soak it all in, from the tiny details of linen tablecloths and summery heat that jump right off the screen to the incredible, historic tension developing as the Chinese begin their fight to rid the nation of British colonialism. An outstanding achievement that is a tribute to the wonderfully priggish dramas made of Maugham’s novel in the forties, infused with a contemporary honesty about human relationships.
Directed by John Curran
Cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Production Design by Juhua Tu
Costume Design by Ruth Myers
Film Editing by Alexandre de Franceschi