Dir: John Curran. US-Chi.2006. 125mins.

Adapted from W Somerset Maugham's novelabout an idealistic newlywed British couple living in turbulent 1920s China, JohnCurran's The Painted Veil is apalpably alive and heart-rending romantic drama about the extremes -geographic, sexual and emotional - travelled in a struggling marriage. Far morethan an attractive literary period-piece, it is successful both in how itestablishes a sense of time and place and the fine performances it draws fromits two leads, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.

Norton, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and producer Sara Colletonare to be applauded for championing this project for so many years: the resultis a work that has a resonating modern vitality while keeping its characterstrue to their era

In the US, when it opens onDec 20, it is likely to play as not-so-veiled upscale holiday-seasonromantic-drama, finding a particular audience with female crowds. Box office islikely to be along the lines of Neil Jordan's 1999 feature The End Of The Affair (US: $10.8m): it shouldcertainly do better in North America than the last Maugham adaptation, Being Julia (2004, US: $7.7m), simplybecause the story is more satisfying. Awards profile could push it even higher,although it is too modest a production to approach the $128m worldwide thatSydney Pollack's Oscar-winner Out OfAfrica (1985) did more than two decades ago.

Overseas, where The End Of TheAffair drew more than half its takings, it should also find attention amongupscale audiences. It will be interesting to watch how The Painted Veil, which is shot primarily in English with someMandarin, plays in China. Shot in southern China's mountainous Guangxi Province, where it can be released as a homegrown feature (it is a co-production with the ChinaFilm Bureau), it treats Chinese history with respect and features severalChinese name cast.

The film begins with thequick courtship and somewhat passionless marriage between Kitty (Watts), amildly libertine upper-class woman whose parents find her selfish; and Walter(Norton), a shy biologist who works in China but has returned to England.

When they return toShanghai, Walter discovers she is having an affair with a British vice consul(Schreiber) and forces her to accompany him to a cholera-ravaged remote villageto suffer alone while he tries to contain the epidemic. But slowly, they startto see the goodness in each other.

Director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore) andscreenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) keep the story balanced between telling,sometimes-searching, conversations that have the power of revelation and themore old-fashioned plot points.

Some of the bigger scenesseem under-resourced however: the mob scenes involving Chinese extras seemunderwhelming and flimsy, especially when it comes to a march by rural choleravictims into the frightened village (although the historical details about theoutbreak and the politically restive Chinese community are involving).

Naomi Watts has something tolive up to, given that Greta Garbo played Kitty inthe 1934 screen adaptation. But her performance is superb; initially a subtlebut never condemnatory rendition of a vain woman, it grows more powerful witheach scene as Kitty starts to change. It's so good that the audience neverrealises that until almost the end that the film is about Kitty's changes.

Edward Norton, too, is fineand maintains a convincing accent throughout, mixing sternness with warmth.Diana Rigg is outstanding as a nun in charge of aCatholic school who confides her religious disillusionment to Kitty.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh excels at front-lighting close-ups with a warm,subdued yellow glow, and his shots of the region's misty valleys and lakes aregorgeously meditative. The tastefully orchestrated score by Alexander Desplat straddles major and minor melodies and is enrichedby gentle solo piano work from Lang Lang.

Production companies/backers
Warner Independent Pictures
Bob Yari Productions
The Mark Gordon Company
A Collection Company
Class 5 Films
Dragon Studios Production
Warner China Film
HG Corporation

International sales

US distribution
Warner Independent Pictures

Executive producers
Mark Gordon
John Curran
Antonia Barnard
Ron Nyswaner

Sara Colleton
Jean-Francois Fonlupt
Bob Yari
Edward Norton
Naomi Watts

Ron Nyswaner from the novel by W Somerset Maugham

Stuart Dryburgh

Alexandre de Franceschi

Production design
Tu Juhua

Alexandre Desplat

Main cast
Naomi Watts
Edward Norton
Live Schreiber
Toby Jones
Diana Rigg