Love in a time of cholera
The Painted Veil ( M)
Black Water ( MA15+)
Transylvania ( M)
CINEMA is the art of illusion and two of three very different films this week transport us to interesting and exotic locations that, on closer inspection, aren’t exactly what they seem. To start with, the brief London street scenes in The Painted Veil , a strikingly good version of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel, were filmed in Shanghai. Indeed, this ChineseUS co- production was entirely and magnificently shot in China.
The book has been filmed twice before: in 1934 at MGM with Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall, and at the same studio 23 years later as The Seventh Sin with Eleanor Parker and Bill Travers ( a troubled production during which the original director, Vincente Minnelli, was replaced by Ronald Neame).
Neither film was particularly admired or commercially successful. So it was a surprising announcement that a new version would be made by John Curran, an American who studied film in Australia and who directed his first feature, Praise , here in 1998. Actor Edward Norton had championed the project; his co- star, Naomi Watts, who had worked with Curran before, brought the director on board.
Watts gives fine performances in every film she makes. She’s at her best as Kitty, a rather vacuous Englishwoman jealous that her younger sister has found a husband before she has. She latches on to Walter Fane ( Norton), a bacteriologist who clearly has never before met anyone as flirtatious and superficially entertaining. In no time they’re married and off to Shanghai, where Kitty, who becomes bored with her studious mate, embarks on an indiscreet affair with Charlie Townsend ( Liev Schreiber), the British vice- consul, oblivious that he’s married.
In such a small community it’s no wonder that Fane becomes aware of his wife’s infidelity and he responds by taking her with him to Mei- tanfu, a village far from the city where an outbreak of cholera is taking its toll.
Here the disgraced and chastened Kitty, virtually ignored by her husband, finds comfort in the friendship of Waddington ( Toby Jones), the local British representative, and the selfsacrificing nuns, led by the mother superior ( Diana Rigg), who help nurse the sick.
What could have been a conventional melodrama is elevated into a fine film, and not only because of the exemplary performances. The decision to shoot at what were evidently difficult locations in China has paid dividends: here is a powerful depiction of the country and its people that adds to the intensity of the drama.
Curran and writer Ron Nyswaner have made useful additions to Maugham’s story by emphasising the tension between the Chinese and the British, drawing on a real- life incident, a massacre of Chinese demonstrators by the British military in 1925.
The magnificent location photography by New Zealander Stuart Dryburgh is another asset to an emotionally rich love story that, though oldfashioned in some ways, resonates powerfully.
* * * JUST as Shanghai streets stand in for London in The Painted Veil , suburban Sydney convincingly provides a crocodile- infested river in Black Water , an independent Australian feature.
Unlike Greg Mclean’s recent thriller Rogue, a monster movie that plays with the theme of tourists in peril, Black Water — written and
Limited national release
directed by Andrew Traucki and David Nerlich — attempts, with some success, to be more realistic. The opening scenes establish the three characters whose lives are about to be placed in jeopardy: Adam ( Andy Rodoreda), his wife Grace ( Diana Glenn), who has just discovered she’s pregnant, and Grace’s younger sister Lee ( Maeve Dermody). The three are holidaying in the Top End, and after visiting a crocodile farm they decide to hire a tinny and a local guide ( Ben Oxenbould) to spend a few hours fishing.
Big mistake! In no time, their boat is overturned by a croc and their guide is history. The three tourists climb a tree and they’re stuck: mobile phones don’t work and there’s nobody around except the lurking croc. What follows is pretty intense and the directors deserve praise for their ability to create suspense with such a scene: after all, there’s nowhere much the three terrified characters can go.
At the same time, this makes for a limiting experience, since the entire cast is up a tree for most of the running time. In contrast to most monster films, we see very little of the crocodile, but the glimpses are scary enough. This is a case of less is more, and it’s thanks to the three creditable actors, especially Dermody, that the film works as well as it does.
* * * SMALL villages in the mountainous region of Transylvania, Romania, provide the backdrop for French director Tony Gatlif’s latest musical drama. Gatlif, who has celebrated Gypsy, or Romany, culture in many of his films, does so again in Transylvania , with a sliver of a plot, a great deal of song and dance, plus a travelogue of a little- known part of Europe.
The formidable Asia Argento plays Zingarina, an Italian woman living in Paris. When her lover Milan ( Marco Castoldi) disappears, Zingarina, who is two months’ pregnant, believes he has been deported by the French authorities. With her friend Marie ( Amira Casar), she travels to Transylvania to search for him.
They track him down, but it seems that he left France, and her, of his own accord. This is a blow to the highly emotional Zingarina but it doesn’t take long for her to transfer her affections to the gloomy Tchangalo ( Birol Unel).
Argento is not the most subtle actor and her appeal is probably an acquired taste. But even when her amorous adventures begin to pall there’s plenty to enjoy thanks to Gatlif’s delight in the songs and dances of the region and the Transylvanian people. There are no vampires, just a rich and proud culture, lovingly explored.
Magnificent location photography: Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in a scene from The Painted Veil