A British doctor helps fight a cholera epidemic in China whilst dealing with increasing threats to westerners by Nationalists. His unfaithful wife begrudgingly joins him.
I’m a sucker for period pieces and movies with exotic locations. While I didn’t know much about the plot going into it, I saw that the film had received generally positive reviews, and as I enjoy both Naomi Watts (“The Glass Castle”) and Edward Norton (“Alita: Battle Angel”) I thought I could give this film a go.
My thoughts on where the direction of the plot would lead me were tossed back and forth as the first tumultuous, crisis-ridden twenty minutes hurled by; I thought I was in for one heck of a ride. But then the film slows down, and quite quickly reveals itself to be a rather predictable romantic drama vying for an Oscar.
Don’t get me wrong, when I label this film ‘Oscar-bait,’ I don’t entirely mean it as a bad thing. Sometimes Oscar-bait romance movies really work for me (I can admit that, right?), and while I wouldn’t say this is as good as “Cold Mountain”, “The English Patient”, or “Atonement”, this is by no means a bad movie. There are some beautiful locations and some absolutely stunning cinematography; both of our leads give good performances; and the story itself is good… but that’s all it is: good. It really fails to transcend from good to great in any scene. It is a predictable, enjoyable, somewhat emotional journey that I think many people would be happy to get swept up in, myself included. This is one of those movies that I feel will sadly be unjustly forgotten to the sands of time, but I’m of the opinion that just because it’s not quite good enough to considered a classic, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some compelling characters and some very tender, beautiful moments.
“It does seem silly, really. To put all the effort into something that’s just going to die.”
After being pressured into a marriage to a brilliant but distant medical doctor named Walter (Norton), Kitty Fane (Watts), quickly falls in love with another married man named Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber, “Spotlight”). After Walter finds out about the infidelity, he decides to take a post in a cholera-ridden village where he hopes he can be of some help to the local doctors and townspeople (Toby Jones, “Berberian Sound Studio”). He gives Kitty an ultimatum and she is resigned to come with him. As the two embark on a journey into a country riddled with plague, they find themselves in contempt of each other. Where could this possibly go from here?
As I mentioned above, this movie has a rather tumultuous first twenty minutes and then it sort of settles into a meagerly paced film. Those first twenty minutes sort of prepared me for a lot to happen in this movie, but after Norton and Watts arrive at their small Chinese village, not a lot of conflict really happens other than the two of them dancing around each other trying to figure each other out. Of course, there are the side plots that have to do with Watts’s involvement with the local convent and their Reverend Mother (Diana Rigg, “The Great Muppet Caper”- whom, I have to add is also the Queen of Thorns in HBO’s Game of Thrones- so seeing her in a habit again was kind of shocking. I half expected her to stare icily at Watts at say, “Tell Cersei it was me!”), Norton working with the townspeople to purify their water, and the looming shadow of Chinese nationalists killing Westerners, but as far as on-screen conflict goes, there isn’t much that matches the height of the drama in the first twenty minutes after we arrive at the village.
One of the main reasons to watch this film is for Naomi Watts’s performance. I feel like Watts doesn’t get enough credit as an actress- not only is she incredibly diverse with her roles (“Birdman”, “Mulholland Drive”, “King Kong”), but she seems to really throw herself into those rolls with everything she has. While this film doesn’t have anything as physically demanding as say her roll in “The Impossible”, this roll is just as difficult to play. Watts is our main character, and within the first twenty minutes, our protagonist has already been unfaithful to her husband and tried to divorce him. She’s a rather unlikeable, stubborn character in the beginning (so is Norton, but he wasn’t the one doing the cheating). Watts has a difficult roll to play in that she not only has to convince us to like her in the face of her infidelity, but also in the way that she fights against her husband’s good intentions for the majority of the movie.
Norton too is a rather cold person throughout this film, but his character is treated with a sort of reverence that felt almost like over-glorification at some points. His character was sort of put up on a pedestal for which Watts’s character had to try to prove herself worthy. Almost every action Norton took seemed laden with good intentions, to the point that he almost became saint-like (I wasn’t a huge fan of that aspect of this movie). This aspect of the film also played into the ‘white savior complex’ that this film has…
As the issue of whitewashing is something that only recently has started to really draw backlash in Hollywood, it’s hard to fault a film thirteen years old for having very few Chinese characters in a movie based in China. But… I did find it strange that, while Norton is helping Chinese people, very few Chinese actors had lines in this film. In fact, every single main character in this film is white (that issue is sort of addressed by having the shadow of Nationalists attacking westerners, but it still feels a little strange that in a movie set in China not even one Chinese actor was given an important roll). Norton’s character sweeps into this small little village and solves all of their problems for them. In some senses, this storyline feels like a white savior complex incarnate, however, the way that Norton’s character arc concludes makes it seem as if Norton and those he helps are equals. It’s still problematic, but again, this was made more than a decade ago… If I were to take issue with every white savior complex in movies made pre-2010s, it would be unlikely I’d ever see many of the classics. Take that with a grain of salt; it’s an issue that, for them when they made this movie, probably felt like a nonissue.
The real reason I think I was impressed with this movie is that, despite its flaws, and despite the fact that it was somewhat predictable, I actually found myself caring for the characters (even though I felt like I had been tricked into liking them). It’s rare that a film is able to give us two unlikeable characters that turn into characters of virtue, and it feels unforced and believable. I liked the character and story arcs they showed us even though I knew my emotions were being coyly manipulated. This is a movie that, like “Atonement” and “The English Patient”, is trying to get you to fall in love with these characters so your heart breaks by the end. While my heart didn’t quite break, I did feel a swell of emotion near the end, and that’s better than I can say for a lot of romance films.
I found myself enjoying this movie throughout my viewing. The cinematography and landscapes, the costume and production design, the earnestness of the writing and music; it all works together to create an alluring and exotic world. This film is very good, but it falls short of great.
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