Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) has been courting Kitty (Naomi Watts) for some time, and finally proposes marriage; Kitty doesn't love Walter in the least, but feeling pressure from her parents to stop being such a financial burden -- it's 1925, and Kitty's not getting any younger -- she accepts. Walter works as a bacteriologist in Shanghai, where Kitty begins an affair with British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber). Walter discovers the affair, and announces that he's off the a small village in the interior of China to help battle a cholera epidemic; Kitty can either come with him, or he will begin very nasty, very public, very scandalous divorce proceedings.
It took me longer to type that paragraph than it takes director John Curran to go through that backstory, so if you blink during the first five minutes of the movie, you'll miss a lot.
Things slow down considerably once the Fanes arrive in Mei-tan-fu, where they are not exactly greeted with open arms; Chinese nationalism is on the rise, and some recent unpleasantness in Shanghai (British soldiers shooting Chinese workers) has made westerners rather unwelcome. The only Brit left in the village is local consul Waddington (Toby Jones), and there's also a convent of French nuns who run the orphanage and hospital (Diana Rigg is the Mother Superior).
Walter and Kitty spend most of the movie very pointedly not talking to one another, or at the very least, not actually saying what's on their minds, in that very reserved British way that's meant to suggest that passions seethe just below the surface. Unfortunately, all it suggests here is that Norton and Watts are so uncomfortable with the formal sentence structure and grammatical precision of the period dialogue (Ron Nyswaner adapted W. Somerset Maugham's novel) that they'd rather just not speak.
That's always a challenge in this sort of period piece; even if the characters are not allowed to express their feelings, the actors are still obliged to communicate those feelings to the audience. Norton and Watts are so focused on starched propriety that nothing else escapes the screen.
There are better performances from the supporting players. Toby Jones, playing the sort of dissolute diplomat obligatory in this sort of story, gives the movie a much needed sense of humor and jolt of energy; he's far more interesting here than he was as Truman Capote earlier this year in Infamous. Diana Rigg is given the movie's best speech, about the challenges and joys women face in long marriages, whether their husband is a doctor or God. Also worthy of praise is Alexandre Desplat's score, which features pianist Lang Lang to such an extent that a "Painted Veil Concerto" seems inevitable.
But Norton and Watts are so horribly uncomfortable here, with all the humanity shellacked out of them, that those small pleasures can't save the movie. A serious disappointment.