China, 1925: Bacteriologist Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) jealously ends his spoilt wife Kittys (Watts) adulterous affair by making her accompany him to a remote province where a cholera epidemic rages. Amid hostility and disease, the couple rediscover purpos
Time was you could count on scandalous misbehaviour in intemperate climes in the scads of melodramas adapted from W. Somerset Maugham’s tales: Bette Davis gunning down her lover in The Letter; Joan Crawford undoing a missionary in Rain; colonial Brits in the mysterious Orient succumbing to exoticism, humidity and gin, that whole decadence of a dying Empire thing. Edward Norton spent six years (and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner even longer) getting this Maugham romance of revenge and redemption made without lowering themselves to such florid goings-on. Which is kind of a shame. It’s finely done, but appeals more to the head than the heart.
The treatment is a world away from torrid, with beautiful Chinese vistas and vivid local colour contrasting with the central characters’ very internalised conflict. There is sex, betrayal and passion along with the parasols and cocktails, to be sure. But there is a coolness about it that is almost clinical.
The performances are faultless but distant. Norton is a Civil Service stiff, at ease only in his lab. His rage and vindictiveness when he discovers his wife’s affair come as a shock, but almost make him as unsympathetic as Watts’ party girl, who married him on petulant impulse. It is plausibly, quietly, unspectacularly by inches that he earns re-evaluation as he steps up amid tragic travail, and that she earns her forgiveness. Their co-stars are terrific. Toby Jones is a raffish delight as the “deputy commissioner to the back of beyond” type, sustaining himself with plenty of whisky, opium and filthy foreign sex. Liev Schreiber’s pores ooze oily charm as the “career diplomat at the Shanghai consulate” type, with his practised line in serial seduction all too easily captivating Kitty. The surprise bonus is Diana Rigg as a no-nonsense nun rearing orphans, nursing contagious peasants and bucking up Kitty with some marvellous life wisdom.
The screenplay and direction find intriguing detail and nuances that weren’t even in the book, let alone the previous film versions (in their days Greta Garbo and Eleanor Parker both played the strayed wife rolling up her sleeves and wringing out the face cloths to redeem herself). But it needed a hearty fire under it, not the low-burning flame of earnest, intellectual intent.
Handsomely crafted, with meticulous performances, yet it plays out drily and in monotone.