Love in a time of cholera

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

The Painted Veil ( M)

Na­tional re­lease

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 re­lease

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

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