Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

07 January 2007

Supporting Actress Blog-a-thon

John Curran's film of Somerset Maugham's novel The Painted Veil boasts some memorable performances, gorgeous scenery, beautiful costumes, an exotic locale and a heartbreaking score by Alexandre Desplat. It is a film, really in the tradition of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant more than it is anything else. Which is, of course, why I liked it so very much—liked it more, in fact, than Merchant-Ivory's final collaborative effort The White Countess.

This post is part of The Class of 2006 Supporting Actress Blog-a-thon hosted by Stinkylulu, so this post really needs to focus on the actressing at the edges that The Painted Veil (so handsomely) contains. The actress to whom I refer is sixties and seventies sex symbol/glamor icon and eighties and nineties "Mystery!" host Dame Diana Rigg, who, in The Painted Veil gives a lovely, sensitive performance of quiet grief and steely determination.

Naomi Watts' English aristocrat Kitty Fane, having lost her husband's love and relocated deep into the interior of the Chinese mainland, finds herself bored and feckless. She seeks out purpose at an orphanage run by a group of French nuns supervised by Rigg's Mother Superior. Though the relationship between Kitty and her husband Walter (an earnest-as-usual Edward Norton) it is the relationship betweenn Kitty and the Mother Superior that becomes crucial to the way the film works. The Mother Superior is what Kitty didn't have in her own mother back in England and both women accept the relationship quickly.

Rigg's work in these moments is exceptional. The actress is, of course, costumed in the full habit of the brides of Christ and so she has only her face and her voice as instruments. But the character emerges fully formed from the first scene: commanding the consumption of a specially-made madeleine and sternly refusing a male access to her convent. The Mother Superior is worn, exhausted from years of service and yet occasionally, in flashes of superb transformation, her eyes twinkle and hope dances in their spheres. When she talks about love with Kitty, Mother Superior speaks of her relationship with god as difficult but old and comfortable. She speaks of her contentment with her choice, but her actions are at odds slightly with this alleged peace. Mother Superior fights with all her power to bring Kitty and her husband back together and when given the opportunity, she forbids Kity from choosing nobility over her own happiness.

Her last word onscreen is "no," a command after which Kitty offers no argument. The film cuts away after the word. Rigg is so convincing, her character so compelling, we don't even need to see if Kitty has tried to argue. We know she hasn't. Rigg's delivery says that the argument is over. It's a brilliant performance.

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