(2006) John Curran directed this gorgeously filmed adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel set in 1925 China. Dissatisfied living with her mother and father in London, Kitty (Naomi Watts), a young brunet, meets Dr Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a bacteriologist, briefly away from his Civil Laboratory job in Shanghai. After falling in love with Kitty at first sight, Walter proposes marriage during their second encounter, explaining that he must return to China. "I don't know you at all," says Kitty, but marries him.
While her husband devotes himself to studying micro-organism diseases, Kitty becomes acquainted socially with Charlie Townsend (Live Schreiber), the British vice consul, and his wife Dorothy. During a Chinese theater performance, Charlie invents an interpretation of the dancer's movements: the heavy bondage of a poor trapped soul inside a lonely woman, weeping for the love she'll never feel or give. Kitty falls for Charlie's smooth charm.
Walter announces having volunteered to be a doctor at Mei-tan-fu, a town in the interior suffering from a cholera epidemic. When Kitty refuses to accompany him, he faults her for being a fool in addition to being selfish, spoiled, and ignorant, telling her he will divorce her for adultery. Nevertheless, he offers her a compromise, to which he knows Charlie won't accede.
In Mei-tan-fu the emotionally distant couple is greeted by Deputy Commissioner Waddington (Toby Jones), who says that if the cholera doesn't get them, the nationalists might. The Chinese commander Colonel Yu provides Kitty with a bodyguard, Sung Ching, as a precaution since demonstrations against the British have erupted in Shanghai.
As a clinical researcher Walter had never before treated actual human patients dying of cholera; without transfusions of saline solution, those infected die within 36 hours of dehydration. Feeling utterly useless, Kitty visits the Catholic convent and orphanage run by Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) and her nuns; she volunteers with the orphaned infants and then with teaching music when another nun dies.
Meanwhile, after finding the well water and the river contaminated, Walter advises Col Yu of the need to forcefully require immediate burial of all corpses, disrespecting local customs of giving proper devotions for the dead. Further, permission to remove corpses buried close to the river and to obtain a new water supply require permission from an intransigent local warlord.
Gradually Kitty recognizes how "incredibly noble" her husband has been in his selfless work. Mutual respect and appreciation, along with realization that they had looked for qualities in each other neither had, rekindles affection. Kitty says to Waddington: "As if a woman ever loved a man for his virtue."
After Kitty mentions an obligation to be there out of duty and love, Mother Superior confesses to her own impetuous love affair at 17 in becoming a religious: "He's disappointed me. Ignored me." In this time of cholera and suspicion, Kitty discovers she's pregnant just before the infectious-disease specialist falls ill.
What lies behind the painted veil of altruism? The film questions the appearance of Christian charity and humanism, in that the nuns want to save heathen souls for Christ and Walter is taking advantage of an opportunity to perform research.
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