March 27, 2007 -- This classic love story, set in China, is an unforgettable story of anger, betrayal, forgiveness, kindness and revenge. It is unlike any love story I've seen before, and I've seen a lot of them. Based on a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, the story is set in China in the 1920s. It features excellent performances by Naomi Watts of “King Kong” and Edward Norton of “Down in the Valley” as Kitty and Walter Fane, an unhappy young married couple. Flashbacks show us how the two met and were married.
Walter, a bacteriologist, takes a post in China, then volunteers to provide assistance to a remote village where a bad cholera epidemic has broken out. Meanwhile, Kitty has an affair with a government official, Charlie Townsend (played by Liev Schreiber of “The Omen”). She is forced to go with Walter to deal with the epidemic. It is a very unhappy arrangement for both Walter and Kitty. The two eventually reconcile while Walter works to find a way to stem the epidemic and Kitty helps with the orphans at a local orphanage. Their interactions with the locals are also strained, with strong anti-foreign sentiments running high. Their relations with local military officials and warlords are also interesting. The warlords are losing their power and the old British empire is also weakening. The forces of nationalism are becoming stronger.
The main drama of the movie isn't about the march of history, but about the evolving relationship between Walter and Kitty. Their marriage is based on a sham, then it is broken, then rebuilt. On the surface, the movie is about the nobility of Walter's volunteer work, but even that is called into question. Perhaps Walter volunteered to fight the epidemic as a way to punish his wife. It is even suggested that his decision to go in harm's way is a kind of murder-suicide plot. At the same time Walter is passionate about helping the people of the small village, Mei-tan-fu, where they are staying. He works hard with local officials to secure an uncontaminated water supply for the people of the town. The nuns who run the orphanage also seem altruistic, until Walter points out that they pay locals in order to get child converts for their convent. Everyone in this film has an ulterior motive, but sometimes they often do good things despite themselves.
Both Watts and Norton give excellent performances in this film, along with the rest of the cast. The woman who plays the Mother Superior of the convent, by the way, is none other than the former Emma Peel of the Avengers, Diana Rigg. Also of note is Toby Jones (of “Mrs Henderson Presents”) who plays a slightly corrupt, but wise and agreeable Brittish official, Waddington. He has that kind of world-weary wisdom won from hard experience. Another standout performer is Anthony Wong, who plays Colonel Yu, the chief military officer in the area of Mei-tan-fu. Also notable is Li Feng, who plays Kitty's military bodyguard, Sung Ching. The location photography by Stuart Dryburgh (“The Recruit”) captures the lush, spectacular scenery in Guangxi Province in Southern China very well. The film features the town of Huang Yao which was where the Mei-tan-fu scenes were shot. The film is very reminiscent of those stylish Merchant-Ivory films like “Remains of the Day” with its emphasis on early 20th Century repressed, upper class British characters. Unlike the Merchant-Ivory films, however, this one has a good measure of humor to go with all that upper class repressed angst. This film rates a B.
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