The title comes from a Shelley sonnet: "Lift not the painted veil which those who live, call life," and I guess if the film had a moral, it's that the grass is perhaps not always greener on the other side of the fence. Kitty (Watts) marries bacteriologist Dr. Walter Fane (Norton), less for love, than as a means of escaping her controlling family. He takes her off to Shanghai but when he discovers she's been having an affair, insists on her accompanying him up country, to where a cholera epidemic is ravaging the population. There, the couple start off barely speaking to each other, yet gradually come to appreciate each other's attributes and forgive the wrongs they have inflicted on each other - they both mature through the experiences. Another interesting aspect is the culture clash which ensue: Fane knows what needs to be done to stop the epidemic, but his approach fails to take into account local traditions and so meets far more resistance than it should. He's helped by a local officer (Wong), who knows how to work around the obstacles, and achieve success in a way that Fane's straightforward approach would never manage. However, let's just say, the film is set in a cholera epidemic for a reason...
It has a sluggish start, and the first half is right out of the Merchant-Ivory, chocolate-box school of film-making described by Eddie Izzard as "'a room with a view with a staircase and a pond'-type movies." However, once the films hits its rural stride, with the stunning Chinese landscape as a backdrop, things improve markedly, helped by the fine performances. Norton will always be remembered for his neo-Nazi in American History X [a badass I somehow left off my list], but his recent performances have done a good job of reinventing him. It's mostly Watts' film, however, and she has a beautiful character arc, forged in tragedy and going from a bland and flighty young girl, interested only in herself, to a mature and responsible woman. Truth be told, we probably only watched this after stumbling across Anthony Wong's supporting role on cable; that said, it's by no means a bad film.