This melodic adaptation of the W. Somerset Maugham novel is the story of many things – such as an epidemic in the rural corners of a modernizing and nationally unified China, circa 1925 – but it is most of all the story of a marriage. British socialite Kitty (Watts) marries Walter Fane (Norton), a timid bacteriologist. “I think I improve greatly upon acquaintance,” he offers, but life together is boring despite a sojourn in Shanghai, where Kitty chases cheap thrills with a fellow expat (Schreiber). Walter punishes Kitty with a 10-day overland journey to a village on the Yangtze that is overrun with cholera and needs a new doctor. With death and rebellion at their door, the Fanes settle into an aggressive silence. But as Walter tirelessly promotes germ theory and municipal hygiene, will Kitty warm to his sanitary love? The changes in China’s political and cultural landscape mirror Kitty's and Walter’s own hopes of redemption and vice versa. Meanwhile, Ron Nyswaner’s ambitious script marries Hollywood appeal and literary sensibility. Beneath the veneer of pretty, old-Miramax-style chinoiserie (Jones as a debauched civil servant gone native, the obligatory scene of Peking opera, and pastoral beauty shots by Stuart Dryburgh, Jane Campion’s cinematographer) there is a bitterly observant indie movie – acted with such venomous restraint that it hurts to watch – about an antagonistic marriage. In one scene Walter and Kitty terrorize each other quietly with a bowl of unsanitary vegetables, some kind of rural salad probably teeming with Vibrio cholerae
. It’s not cute or funny; it’s not Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg having an art film food fight. It’s two people who would each suffer a painful death from dehydration to spite the other. Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore)
milks the bile from his actors with a slow hand, then returns us to the building of a water wheel for the village. Because the movie aspires to transnational authenticity, prolific Hong Kong tough guy Wong is Norton’s Chinese attaché. When idealistic man-of-science Norton praises their countries’ cooperation, Wong retorts, “It would be nice to do this work together without your country’s guns pointed at our people.” But the movie is not grim, even as it endangers a wise nun (Rigg) and her gaggle of orphans in its most unfortunate melodramatic moments. Rather, it suggests the possibility of mutual healing, of people working together in love.