“When the studios are in for a penny, they’re in for a pound. When you’re giving them product, then their nose is in the wind a lot more. If it smells good, they’ll run with it. But if it doesn’t, they’re not invested in it.” — The Painted Veil star Edward Norton to Hollywood Reporter/”Risky Business” columnist Anne Thompson in her 12.18 column.

This is the money quote that pretty much explains why Veil producer Bob Yari is flustered about what he sees as faint Warner Bros. support in terms of “For Your Consideration” Oscar ads for The Painted Veil. The bottom line is that Warner Bros. honchos have put a damp finger to the wind and decided that the film doesn’t smell all that good — that it’s a respectable stiff.
This despite its high-pedigree credentials (an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham novel, shot in rural Chinese locations, well-rendered 1920s period sets and costumes), mildly interesting performances and Stuart Dryburgh‘s eye-filling cinematography. As Slant‘s Jason Clark has written, Veil “is more or less from the school of motion picture that Pauline Kael used to say ‘reeks of quality.'” And the import of the story….good heavens.
It’s basically about how a pretty young British woman (Noami Watts), under pressure from her parents to find a suitable mate, marries a dweeby stuffed-shirt bacteriologist (Norton)…and gradually comes to love and respect him for his character and steadiness and compassion for Chinese peasants afflicted with cholera. The message, in short, is that humorless prigs with commendable inner qualities make good husbands as long as the woman in question gives up all those immature ideas about heady romantic attraction, great sex and other spirit-lifting chemistries.
Watching this film a few weeks ago made me feel frustrated, impatient, bored — bees were buzzing in my head. 70 minutes into it I got up and asked the projec- tionist how much time was left, and when he told me there was another 55 minutes to go my heart just sank. I went back to my seat and told The Envelope‘s Tom O’Neil, who was sitting next to me, “I can’t do this”…and I left. As I was driving out of the parking garage I saw a woman who’d been sitting behind O’Neil and myself walking up the ramp. “You left too?” I asked. “Oh, God…please!”, she replied.
Yari, naturally, believes in the film and is fighting for it tooth and nail — the mark of a good producer. But The Painted Veil is one respectably doomed film if I ever saw one. That said, 67% of the Rotten Tomatoes critics who’ve posted so far have raved, liked it or gave it a qualified pass.
L.A. Times film reporter John Horn has written a similar piece about the same kettle of fish.