Given what an awful stiff Somerset Maugham can be, it's remarkable how many movies have been made of his uptight tales of civil servants sweating it out in British colonies (48 for the big screen alone). John Curran's fresh take on Maugham's The Painted Veil, from a crisp script by Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, is sober and delicate, but downright buoyant compared to a dull 1934 adaptation, starring a miscast Greta Garbo, and a 1957 remake, The Seventh Sin, that tanked on arrival. Edward Norton makes a pretty impressive stiff himself as Walter, a research doctor who, after marrying up and badly to bored socialite Kitty (a suitably brittle Naomi Watts), moves to Shanghai, where he immerses himself in the study of infectious disease while she immerses herself in a caddish vice consul (Liev Schreiber). Galvanized out of his insipid servility by jealous rage, Walter hauls the missus off to a cholera-ridden rural outpost, where the two gradually defrost in mutual devotion to duty. Bolstered by a strong ensemble -- Infamous's Toby Jones as a deputy commissioner gone native and a wonderfully wrinkled Diana Rigg -- and by the ecstatic cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh, The Painted Veil lifts Maugham's story clear of its prissy, attenuated spirituality and into genuine passion.
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The Painted Veil screens at Chez Artiste, 2800 South Colorado Boulevard; visit www.landmarktheatres.com for showtimes and tickets.