Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Maugham on the Screen, or reflections on quartets, trios, encores, veils, villas, and letters

 Quartet (1949), Trio (1950) and Encore (1951),
How outstanding acting overrides grave defects

It is just wonderful that these movies are now available on DVD (but please note: Region 2 only!), and at great price too. Here we have three discs altogether containing film adaptations of ten of Somerset Maugham's short stories:

Quartet (1949)
Facts of Life
Alien Corn
The Kite
Colonel's Lady

Trio (1950)
The Verger
Mr Know-All

Encore (1951)
The Ant and the Grasshopper
Winter Cruise
Gigolo and Gigolette

The major fault of all movies is that many things in the original stories were changed – and very few of these changes are any improvement indeed. Also, there are dramatic moments brilliantly described by Maugham on paper which are rather perfunctorily treated on the screen. On the whole, there is much more to enjoy than to criticise here, even if none of these movies would I ever prefer to the short stories. I guess, however, that if one has never read Maugham's originals one would naturally enjoy this collection more, and when later, if ever, one comes to read the short stories, one may well like them less. But for Maugham buffs no doubt the most priceless parts are the author's own appearances on the screen to say a few words by way of introduction before most of the stories.

It is not generally known that eponymous books were published almost in parallel with the release of the movies. They contain the complete screenplays and casts, the original short stories, and even Maugham's addresses. It is important to note that the last of these are somewhat longer than in the movies, but whether because they were cut during the editing or because they were never shot in the first place, I do not know. At any rate, the books give a fascinating glimpse into the art of adaptation for the screen, and it is really amazing how well a (very) short story can be told in twenty minutes on the screen with the help of great cast, shrewd director and brilliant screenwriter.

The movies, not the short stories, are the object of this review, but quite a few cross references cannot be evaded. Needless to add, Maugham's addresses, as they appear on the screen, will be discussed in some detail as well.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Although the only words Maugham has to say in Quartet are more or less straight quotation from The Summing Up, it is an extraordinary opportunity to see and hear the words from the Master himself. He doesn't have a pleasant voice, nor a particularly good diction for that matter, and he seems a little ill-at-ease in front of the camera, playing constantly with whatever happens to be in his hands. But he says his little introduction not entirely without confidence, perfectly controlling his legendary stammer which in his later years is reduced to, or rather transformed into, very slight pauses that only make his speech more effective.

Regrettably, Maugham's addresses in the movies are badly cut. Indeed, he appears on the screen but once in the beginning, whereas in the book he has something to say for each short story. It would be a great loss for all Maugham buffs if the other three introductions (as well as the missing part from the last one, for that matter) were shot at the time but were later cut from the movie when it was (re-)released on VHS (and later on DVD). This seems fairly probable because the film and the book were released more or less at the same time: surely it would have made no sense to print Maugham's addresses in the screenplays if they could not be heard and seen in the movie. But that's just a guess of mine. I have never had any experience with early releases of Quartet, nor do I have any additional information on the matter, so I cannot testify whether these missing introductions exist or not.

As for the adaptations themselves, they are on the whole very nicely done. The acting is for the most part excellent, and so is the directing. The black-and-white cinematography and the perfect diction of all actors have a kind of old-fashioned appeal not without its own charm; they would surely be quite a thrill for those who appreciate cinema as a form of art. Naturally, some of the stories seem a bit rushed now and then, for none of them is among Maugham's shortest pieces but each one has only about half an hour screen time.

A flirt in Monte Carlo:
Mai Zetterling (Jeanne) and Jack Watling (Nicky) in "The Facts of Life". 
As far as changes of the literary originals go, there are many of them here, together with a number of Maugham's best lines retained intact. The only real disappointment to my mind is "The Facts of Life" where the whole one-night affair of Nicky is completely changed into a rather infantile flirt, with him and his "lover" sleeping in different rooms. The dramatic impact of the story is thus significantly reduced. Also, this part is perhaps the only one that has a somewhat weak cast as a whole, even though Mai Zetterling in the role of the seductress (Jane here, nameless in the short story) has, or act, a rather sweet foreign accent. Other changes of Maugham's originals, save few alternative endings, are more skilfully done, though I can't honestly say that any of them is an improvement. I admit this is sheer prejudice of mine. Generally speaking, I would never prefer any movie adaptation to anything written by Maugham. It is just short of impossible, for you must have great cast, screenwriter and director, not to mention the extraordinary luck to get them together, for a movie to convey even remotely the complexity of Maugham's characters and his subtle yet penetrating insight into human nature.

Still, there is good deal of superb entertainment here, even though in each and every case, and as far as I am concerned of course, Maugham's short stories are infinitely superior.

Hermione Baddeley as Mrs Sunbury in "The Kite"
The best adaptation is perhaps "The Kite", because undoubtedly it has the strongest cast of all. George Cole is just about the perfect Herbert Sunbury, that queer fellow who so identified his personal freedom with kite flying that he let it ruin his marriage with Betty (finely played by Susan Shaw). The gem, however, is the stunning Hermione Baddeley in the role of Mrs Sunbury, one of Maugham's most memorable characters. Snobbish and conceited to the bone, always keeping herself to herself, and completely unable to survive the tragedy that her son might possibly get married, Mrs Sunbury is certainly a feather in Maugham's cap as well as in the filmography of Hermione Baddeley: her voice, gestures and facile expressions match the character to perfection. Only the happy ending, though only hypothetical in the movie it is completely missing in the short story, lets down the adaptation a bit, but it isn't really a big deal.

"The Alien Corn" has been rather badly cut, omitting completely one of the most fascinating characters in all of Maugham's short stories: the proverbial Jew Ferdy Rabenstein. But that was perhaps inevitable. The movie is rather spoiled by Dirk Bogarde's wooden and uninvolved performance as George Bland, an unusual young man who wanted so badly to be a pianist. Bogarde's mimicking to piano playing is particularly pathetic, not to mention that it is done to the most execrable Chopin one could possibly imagine – but that was probably deliberate. Francoise Rosay is enchanting as the famous pianist Lea Makart who shattered George's whole world; and her Schubert is certainly superior to his Chopin. The finale with the coroner and the jury is missing in the short story but it is a nice device to match, at least partly, Maugham's brutally sarcastic end about George's presumably accidental death. The Foreman said the jury didn't attach any importance to "the music business", because young gentlemen of "Master George's position" certainly wouldn't shoot themselves just because they couldn't play the piano. The effect is spectacular but hardly as chilling as Maugham's original:

Apparently the gun had been loaded and George while playing about with it had accidentally shot himself. One reads of such accidents in the paper often.

"The Colonel's Lady" is wonderfully done, except for the alternative ending in which Evie confesses to George that it was he, not some imaginary lover, who was the inspiration for her writing those passionate love poems which made such a celebrity of her and such a laughing stoke of her husband. Such an ending is so odiously sentimental and so utterly un-Maugham that one wonders how Mr Sheriff (the screenwriter) could at all think of including it here. Nora Swinburne is charming as the quiet, undistinguished and rather unobtrusive Evie Peregrine. By the way, without spectacles and with unleashed hair she looks almost indecently sultry for her age.

Cecil Parker as Colonel Peregrin in "The Colonel's Lady".
But her performance, fine though it may be, is completely overshadowed by Cecil Parker. He is, quite simply, the finest Colonel Peregrine imaginable: always spruce and elegant, unconsciously conceited and snobbish, poorly educated and rather dumb, insincerely cordial and completely unable to cope with his wife's star status, or to put it more accurately: with his own status of the duped husband who excites everybody's ridicule whenever he goes. Mr Parkers gives an unforgettable performance that may well change your future readings of that short story. Certainly, it has changed mine.

'Tis truly a pity that the alternative ending of the movie should be such a disaster, thus ruining a great deal of story's atmosphere as a comedy. Interestingly, the original ending is retained in the movie, but earlier, and is left in pretty much the same words as Maugham originally wrote for the incredulous Colonel Peregrine and the putative lover of his wife:

But I'll tell you what, there's one thing I shall never understand till my dying day: What in the name of heaven did the fellow ever see in her?

The movies in Trio – for these are three different movies – are on the whole better done than Quartet and a treat to watch, though even the best of them – this is deliberately reiterated! – could hardly replace Maugham's original short stories. But that is not the point after all. A movie should aim to represent its literary original in a distinctly original way. The creators of Trio have done an excellent job in this respect.

Smoking the inevitable fag, Maugham quite charmingly tells us that if we see him in this unaccustomed for him role yet again, we have only ourselves to blame: if we hadn't liked so much Quartet, they wouldn't have been encouraged to make Trio. Quite true, of course. So is Maugham's shrewd observation that it is dangerous to try to repeat success, and it is to the public to decide whether they had been well advised to try or not. They certainly had been, as far as I am concerned.

Unlike Quartet, all of Maugham's introductions printed in Trio are complete and unabridged in the film.

The introductions contain nothing really new, but it is a singularly thrilling and moving experience to hear Somerset Maugham himself speaking in this peculiar way of his about Mr. Know-All being a story of his own invention, but he shouldn't like to take an oath in the witness box on that; for, as Dr Johnson said, if a story is good it is unlikely to be new, and if it is new it is unlikely to be good. It is a well known secret in the field of Maughamology that the character of Ashenden is largely based on Maugham himself, but it is quite another story to see and hear the celebrated author telling us that if we'd like to take this character as a flattering portrait of the old party that now stands before us, we are at perfect liberty to do so.

"The Verger" is the story that most of the three deviates from the original, but the main outline is of course preserved. There are some rather amusing changes. One particular favourite of mine is the christening of the former verger's grandchild in the very same St. Peter on Neville Square from which he was so unjustly dismissed. The ceremony is accompanied with a lot of crying, a new experience for a vicar famous for his ability to soothe babies, and generous donation by the ex-verger to the stupefaction of the present vicar. James Hayter gives a splendid performance in the title role even if his fleshy, jovial and good-natured face has nothing to do with Maugham's unforgettable description of Albert Foreman who "looked, if not like a duke, at least like an actor of the old school who specialized in dukes' parts".

Nigel Patrick as Mr Kelada (left) in "Mr Know-All".
"Mr. Know-All" is a true gem. It follows the short story fairly closely but what makes the film brilliant is Nigel Patrick in the role of Mr Kelada, the man who is just impossible to snub. His physical appearance is, again, rather different than Maugham's description in the book, but that is neither here nor there. The constant grinning and his talking nineteen to the dozen practically all the time seem to be inseparable from Mr Kelada's character on paper. After watching the movie I can no longer read the story without Nigel Patrick's stupendously perfect performance in mind. He effectively overshadows an excellent supporting cast. The only drawback here is the climax which is a bit rushed and far less effective than Maugham's short but extremely powerful description. Unlike reading the book, and rather surprisingly perhaps, watching the film doesn't give one the opportunity to see (Maugham's emphasis!) the effort of self-control made by Mr Kelada. But that's a minor fault, perfectly insufficient to spoil the movie on the whole.

The climax in "Mr Know-All": Nigel Patrick as Mr Kelada.
"Sanatorium" is perhaps the best part of Trio. It is as close to Maugham's story as the art of adaptation allows. It is a little slow-paced and sometimes may seem dragged a bit, but then again, so is, and does, the original story. The real reason why this doesn't matter at all is the fabulous cast here. It is nothing short of perfect, from the major roles right down to the two gossipy old hags, whose part is enlarged to a hilarious effect. Jean Simmons and Michael Rennie, both of them gorgeous, make a captivating couple as Evie Bishop and Major Templeton whose love story is very moving indeed. Perhaps because it is doomed from the very beginning, it evades any affected sentimentality which is usually the case with such romances. Roland Culver is probably the greatest incarnation that has ever appeared on the screen of Willie Ashenden, a man of devastating sense of humour and solid common sense, shrewd observer of human passion and human frailty all around the world. John Laurie and Finlay Currie are also quite close to what, I imagine, most people would imagine as Campbell and McLeod, respectively, the two longest residents of the sanatorium whose personal war, on bridge or for the best room, can be terminated, literally, only by death.

As for Encore, yet again, at least for Maugham fans I presume, the most precious part of the movie are his introductions, quite short though they are. Yet again, alas, at least one address is even shorter in the film: in the book it has two parts, one general and one about the story in question, but on the screen the latter was for some inexplicable reason cut, or never made perhaps. Whatever the reasons for this omission, the general introduction to the movie as well as the other two specific ones before each story are complete and really delightful trifles to watch.

Maugham addresses us from his lush and sumptuous garden on the Riviera, disarmingly telling us that he is really quite ashamed of appearing on the screen again for we might think that he fancies himself a movie star. But since, he assures us, he doesn't, that's why he talks from his garden so that if we don't want to look at him, we can look at the flowers (or his magnificent swimming pool for that matter, which is also shown briefly). Together with catchy facetiousness and little jokes, Maugham can be very serious and he always tells us something about the background of his stories making no bones that all of them were of course based on the real life but he always took the liberty to arrange the facts in order to suit his purpose. And his purpose was to entertain. And entertain with these stories he does!

Kay Walsh as Miss Reid in "The Winter Cruise".
On the whole the adaptations, though something of a mixed bag as usual, are well done and make for an enjoyable watching experience. Interestingly, "Winter cruise" is one of the best of all ten stories adapted in all three movies – for it is one of Maugham's most unremarkable works as well a perfect example how he could develop an excruciatingly boring plot with a certain, but subtle, streak of pornography into an entertaining piece of fiction. Kay Walsh is an excellent Miss Reid, the spinster whose loquacity is all but intolerable.

In his introduction, Maugham tells us that she was based on a woman he met while travelling in the South seas who had a heart of gold but was a crashing bore. He avoided her like the plague but all the same, he couldn't help liking her; his hope that the reader/cinemagoer would like her too is justified. It is indeed hard not to like Miss Reed, as the Captain, the Doctor (both brilliantly played, by Noel Purcell and Ronald Squire respectively) and the other fishy subjects of the crew came to know in the end.

Nigel Patrick as Tom Ramsay in "The Ant and the Grasshopper".
The real masterpiece in this movie, as far as I am concerned, is "The Ant and the Grasshopper". One of Maugham's most flippant and most hilarious stories, it is a real riot to read about the charming, debonair and unscrupulous bohemian Tom Ramsay, a black sheep if there ever was one, much at the expense of his decent, hard-working and straightforward brother George. Even though the latter is played by the excellent Roland Culver (Ashenden in "Sanatorium" from Trio), Nigel Patrick as Tom Ramsay completely steals the show. It is hard to believe that this is the same actor who played Mr Kelada in "Mr Know-All" (again from Trio). The glasses and the constant grinning have disappeared only to be replaced by thin smile and roguish look which are perfectly irresistible, as the second (or was it the third?) richest girl in the world can testify as well.

In his introduction, Maugham tells us (only in the book, alas) that Tom was just lucky and in this world one must work hard to earn one's bread. But precisely because the latter is so true, I can't help thinking that Tom, tremendously lucky as he is, does have some kind of special talent for living on the edge – and that is something exceedingly rare indeed. It might be safe to call it genius. The finale of the movie is something of a disappointment in comparison with the highly amusing scene between George and the narrator in the short story, but Nigel Patrick in the title role is so overwhelming that only his cute "Hello, George", spoken in the most engaging tone possible, makes the whole movie worth seeing over and over again.

"Gigolo and Gigoleta" certainly is the disappointment here. Admittedly not one of Maugham's finest efforts in the genre, the short story contains some moving passages as well as a truly devastating satire of the vacuous parties on the Riviera, full of people who have much too much money than can be spent in a lifetime: to be sure, this is Maugham at his element. Unfortunately, the movie conveys neither the empty world of the rich nor the poignant story of Syd and Stella, two victims of the show business in one of its most vulgar and morbid incarnations.

In his introduction, Maugham tells us that he wishes there were laws that prevent such people from risking their lives only to give the fickle crowd a little amusement, but since there aren't, they will continue to break their backs and their necks to give the public a morbid thrill. The screenplay deviates quite a lot from the short story and none of the changes can be said to add something valuable. Glynis Johns and Terence Morgan, as Stella and Syd, act decently but could hardly do justice to the (melo)drama that is supposed to happen between them. By way of tradition, the changed ending is unduly sentimental and a trifle too far removed from Maugham to be taken seriously.

All in all, highly enjoyable movies full of superb acting on a level not so often encountered nowadays. Certainly recommended for Maugham and old cinema buffs alike. If you want a special insight into the art of adaptation, not to mention the original stories and some introduction bonuses, do read the books; old hardbacks can be found for a song.

The Letter (1940),
This is how Maugham should be filmed

Despite Somerset Maugham’s fame as one of the most filmed authors, I have never considered his fiction to be especially filmable. The reason is quite simple. Great storyteller as he certainly was, plot was never the most important thing for Maugham. It was always the characters, with all their complexity and unpredictability, that fascinated him most. And this seldom translates well to the screen. But there are exceptions. This 1940 version of ''The Letter'', one of Maugham’s most famous stories and the only one he adapted into a play of the same name himself, is definitely among the exceptions.

The Letter has a very good plot indeed. It’s not exactly a whodunit, but it may well be defined as a why-done-it. Yet it is the characters of Leslie Crosbie, the victim and murderess, her naïve and gullible yet not as stupid you might think husband Robert, and the sharp, cool and humane lawyer Howard Joyce who elevate an ordinary melodrama to a masterpiece. Indeed, ''The Letter'' is one of several stories for which Maugham claimed to have received complete; it was based on a notorious murder case in British Malaya at the time when the famous author was roaming through it. He just wrote it down, he said, and for once he underestimated himself. The plot is expertly paced and brilliantly revealed, building up to a mighty climax in the end. But it is the characters that stay with me long after the last paragraph.

Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) and Howard Joyce (James Stephenson). 
That’s why we are fortunate to have such a tremendous trio of actors in the 1940 version. Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie steals the show and this is as it should be. She is terrific from start to finish, no movements wasted, no words spoken in vain. Even her overacting is meticulously prepared and not without some relevance to the plot. Herbert Marshall, who six years later would play Maugham himself in The Razor’s Edge (1946), is a suitably doting husband, rather easy to be taken in. James Stephenson should be better known than he is. He gives a powerful performance as Howard Joyce, including some well-placed and perfectly plausible elaborations on part of the screenwriter Howard Koch. Among the supporting cast the gold goes to Gale Sondergaard for her intense portrayal of the victim’s native wife, another compellingly enlarged part.

Gale Sondergaard in The Letter (1940).
The script sticks very closely to the original (play rather than story) and it’s so much the better for it. Many memorable lines were transferred verbatim on the screen; they sound just as fine as they do on paper. The basic differences are the meeting  between Leslie and the native wife (it is Robert, not his wife, who accompanies the lawyer in the story), and the finale. I am not going to spoil the latter for those who haven't seen it yet. But I do want to reassure them that it was not cheapened in the typical Hollywood style. I feared it would be and I am happy that I was wrong. The sequence after the trial scene is perhaps a trifle overlong, but an anticlimax is artfully avoided. Stay tuned until the very end. Surprises just keep coming.

Screen changes in Maugham's original material are usually detrimental, having the unpleasant effect of sentimentalizing his plots and/or robbing his characters of their complexity and charm. This is not the case here. The ending is not just probable and natural. It also is brutal and chilling. (Could this be the reason why this movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards but won none? It must have offended the priggish fellows in the jury.) This is what I mean with the title of this review: if you can think of something different from, yet equally exciting to, the original, so long as it makes sense don’t hesitate to change the script in order to produce a better effect on the screen.

Last but not least, the ''secondary cast'' behind the scenes is excellent, too. The sumptuous score of Max Steiner is suggestive without being obtrusive. The direction of William Wyler is, of course, superb. One can always revisit this movie for the sheer delight of the imaginative direction alone. It is always creative and rich in evocative detail (e.g. the opening sequence with the rubber), yet it is never turned into a self-indulgent display as so often happens with other ''great'' directors.

Taken as a whole, the movie has virtually no weak points. My only mild complaint has to do with the improbable plot element (missing in the original story) according to which Crosbie doesn't know the price of the letter long after it was bought; another slight blemish is that Leslie's devastating sexual passion has been toned down, but I guess it's asking too much for a 1940 production to show anything as steamy as that; the movie, as I’ve already said above, is actually quite daring for its time. The rest is as close to perfection as they come: great story, brilliant acting, impeccable direction, evocative black-and-white cinematography, sultry score. This is how Maugham should be filmed: with great cast and great director, with taste and flair for drama.

Up at the Villa (2000),
A lesson how not to elaborate on Maugham’s short fiction

Let’s get something straight in the beginning. My issue with this movie is not that it has nothing to do (except for mundane plot details) with Somerset Maugham's eponymous novella, first published in 1941, which served as a basis for the screenplay. There is no reason why movie adaptations shouldn't be as free as possible, amounting to entirely original works but vaguely based, or rather inspired, by literary originals. My problem with this movie is that, on its own, it is unbearably dull. It was hard enough to see it once. I certainly don’t plan a re-visit.

That said, Maugham’s novella being a great favourite of mine, I may well be prejudiced, and my disappointment may at least partly be due to the fact that nobody and nothing in this movie lives up to Maugham's characters and atmosphere on paper. Kristin Scott Thomas is a case in point. It baffles me no end how so many people can regard her performance as great. Then again, if you haven’t read the novella, of if you have but didn’t like it, I suppose your admiration for her acting would be a little more comprehensible. It’s difficult to say why, for my part, the final result is so execrable; because Kristin couldn’t act to save her life, or because the script turned Maugham's subtle and incisive characterization into a vapid display of boredom.

The rest of the cast is no better. The two suitors, vivid and compelling creatures on paper, are flattened to death on the screen. Stilted James Fox and soporific Sean Penn significantly contribute to kill any charm that their parts might still possess. The only dim ray of light comes from Anne Bancroft as the Princess. Her part is greatly expanded and she is at her element playing monstrously rich and snobbish ladies fond of naughty games at the expense of her dinner guests. Compare with her equally stellar performance in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (2003).

The best that I can say about this movie is that the additional material is fairly well done. Maugham's original novella is rather a longish short story; it can't bear adaptation into a full-length movie without significant elaboration. There are some nice touches here. For one thing, the highly improbable plot is extended and thus made at least a little more credible. There are fascinating additional characters such as a nasty and lecherous chief of the police, fascist to the bone and quite fond of dirty games. The finale, too, is toned down and more believable in comparison with the literary original.

However, not all new stuff is good. There is one campy character who is far too episodic to be engaging. Even such a great actor as Derek Jacobi couldn’t make so ungrateful a part worth its time on the screen. The visual side, somewhat surprisingly, is not especially impressive either. There are several nice shots of Florence, its magnificent architecture and idyllic countryside, and there are several lavish parties with gorgeous sets and costumes, vividly recreating Italy in pre-WWII times. But that's just about all. So much for the merits of the movie.

On the whole, quite watchable but eminently forgettable drama, full of mannequins speaking lines rather than actors and actresses acting characters. The script and the acting are at best mediocre. The great cinematic potential of Maugham’s novella has remained almost entirely unrealized. Worth seeing, especially if you are a curious Maugham buff or avid fan of period dramas set in the 1930s. Definitely not worth buying for your own collection, unless you’re a die-hard fan of Kristin or Sean.

The Painted Veil (2007),
On books, movies and the relation – or lack of such – between them

I have never understood the passion for comparisons between movies and books, especially when the former is based on the latter which, meanwhile, have acquired something like classical status. The operative word is based. Very few movies are really adaptations in the strict sense of the word; even filmed plays, which retain much of the original dialogue, are often just "based", and vaguely at that, on the originals. This is as it should be. The mediums are entirely different and so are the final results. Film-makers are at their perfect liberty to alter anything they like, no matter how great a classic their source may be. The finished product is a work of art that must stand or fall on its own, not on the ground of dubious comparisons which are the lowest form of criticism (indeed, an eloquent proof that critical faculty is absent).

To cut the long story short, the 2006 movie The Painted Veil is a very fine piece of cinematic art, even though it bears little resemblance to Maugham's eponymous novel, first published in 1925. Let's look at some intriguing differences and try to explain why, though I prefer the novel by far, I also enjoy the movie a lot. Let me first repeat that if you haven't seen/read either, I am going to "spoil" both for you.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

Just about all the novel and the movie share are the names of the characters and the basic elements of the plot. These are by far the least important components. Maugham is often regarded as a great storyteller, but the fact is that his works are much more about characters than about plots. The mainspring of The Painted Veil is Kitty's remarkable spiritual growth from a silly, superficial girl to a mature woman of the world. This is – broadly speaking – retained in the movie. But there are several important differences.

The movie deals much more extensively with the Kitty-Walter relationship. Perhaps expectedly, considering it was designed for the big screen, it is much more personal and romantic. Yet the screenplay artfully avoids sentimentality, which is highly commendable, and there is more than enough food for thought in between. The pace is excellent, with a fine balance between dramatic and more introverted episodes, and the viewer's sense of plausibility is never outraged.

The Painted Veil (2006): striking, sumptuous, symbolic.
It's a hell of a lot more complex in the novel; be sure you won't find any marked reconciliation here, much less any growing passion between Walter and Kitty. He did play an indirect role in her awakening and transformation, yet he remained callous to the end, indeed almost cruel as his last words, the famous quotation "It was the dog that died", suggest. Kitty herself came out with completely different views on the whole of humanity, not just her own husband. But this is not the place to discuss the novel alone!
Kitty (Naomi Watts) and Walter (Edward Norton).
To take but one further example, Kitty's falling again in the end, albeit for a very short while this time, under Charlie's charms is one of the most controversial moments in the novel. In the movie this is replaced with a delightful snub to her ex-lover, much more conventional yet much more effective on the screen. Many have regarded the episode in the novel as highly improbable, even suggesting that Kitty's new outlook is sham. I don't see it that way. On the contrary: it makes her character more plausible, more human. It seems unlikely to me that she should have overcome her older self so quickly and so completely. In contrast, the movie's ending is the more improbable one, but does it matter as long as it's dramatically effective without being utterly fantastical?

On its own the movie has very few weaknesses. The sets and especially the shots on location are stupendous, marvellously evocative feast for the eyes. The soundtrack is gorgeous, with wistful piano solos that complement Kitty's doubts to perfection. The script uses many lines from Maugham's flawless and dramatically exciting dialogue. It flows smoothly and makes a nice elaboration on, or boldly invents, "action" episodes like the uprising or the building of the water canal. There are several lovely bits of humour which are original. My favourites are Waddington's accepting the record from Kitty with the words "Oh, Stravinsky. Very modern." and Walter's assistant mixing martini in the lab. Now that was hilarious. The direction is imaginative without being obtrusive.

Waddington (Toby Jones) and Kitty (Naomi Watts).
The cast is brilliant, my only disappointment being Liev Schreiber as a dull Charlie Townsend; someone more handsome, more dashing, more debonair should have been better. But Edward and Naomi are well-nigh perfect in the two main roles. Characterization and especially character development are notoriously difficult to be shown convincingly on the screen. But when you have a fine screenplay and a talented cast, it is obviously possible. Among the supporting players Toby Jones steals the show as the handsomely ugly Waddington, full of worldly wisdom and good humour. The aged and hard to recognise Diana Rigg is a superb Mother Superior (23 years ago she played Regan against King Lear of Laurence Olivier).

All in all, an excellent movie on virtually all fronts. To my mind, it is less complex and less compelling than the novel, but that is neither here nor there. All changes are equally legitimate, no matter what one may think of them. It is not an adaptation of Maugham's novel. It is rather an elaboration on similar plot lines but using different characters towards different ends.

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