Amid the sweeping beauty of the 1920s Chinese countryside, myriads of Chinese villagers took their last breaths in squalor, victims of the ravages of disease and abject poverty. In The Painted Veil, a sophisticated British couple that travels to China's remote interior to fight cholera suffers from the ravages of a different disease: their own sin. The story that unfolds presents a painful study in the consequences of bitterness and selfishness and offers a glimpse of the redemption found in looking outside oneself.
The film opens as the serious Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) hastily marries shallow Kitty (Naomi Watts), who wants to escape her life in England. Walter whisks Kitty off to China, where he works as a bacteriologist, but neither finds married life in Shanghai what they expect.
When Kitty seeks to relieve her boredom with an ugly affair, Walter demands she accompany him to a remote, cholera-ridden village or be ruined with a shameful divorce. In a dangerous region that most recognize as "no place for a woman," Walter spends his days tirelessly attending dying patients in miserable conditions, and his nights in a miserable marriage he barely acknowledges.
Kitty scoffs at her husband and pines for her old life, including her adulterous relationship, but slowly awakens to the stench of disease and the reality of other people's pain. Only when the couple enters into the depth of suffering around them are they able to see the suffering they've caused one another.
Norton and Watts are exceptionally well cast for the complicated lead roles. The film (rated PG-13 for sexuality, partial nudity, brief drug use, and some disturbing images) is also beautifully shot, with magnificent views of the Chinese countryside, and won a Golden Globe for best original score. But it's the ugliness of disease and sin that provides the backdrop for the movie's real beauty: a striking demonstration that true love requires self-denial, not self-vindication.