Do not judge, and you will not be judged;
do not condemn, and you will not be
condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Stars Naomi Watts and Edward Norton must have liked very much W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, because they are among the producers of this, the book’s third screen adaptation. They portray Walter and Kitty Fane, the most mismatched movie couple since The Break-Up. We first see them sitting amidst their luggage beside a road in rural China. Neither talks with the other while waiting for the arrival of a party with their sedan chairs to conduct them to their new home in a remote district. They are oblivious to the magnificent scenery, with tree-covered mountains rising like cones around them. Through flashbacks we see how the two met at a party where Walter, a shy, stiff doctor specializing in bacteriology, first is smitten by Kitty as she descended the stairs. He asks her to dance, and before we know it, is asking her to marry him. He has but a few days before he must return to his government post in Shanghai. Desiring to escape from her overbearing mother, the shallow girl agrees.
That they do not live “happily ever after” we see in further flashbacks during the scenes when the Fanes are ensconced in their new home in a small village of Mei-tan-fu, where their fellow Brit neighbor Waddington (Toby Jones), who has gone native by taking a Chinese lover, is delighted to have them close by. However, Army Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong) is not pleased, he believing that China would be better off without meddling foreigners. The Colonel assigns one of his soldiers to guard Kitty at all times because of the far more intense xenopbia of the villagers. This hatred is increased when news reaches the village that guards employed by a British company in Shanghai had fired on their striking workers, killing a number of them. Another danger, shared by all, Chinese and British, is the threat of cholera, which has killed hundreds of people in the area, both Chinese and several of the nuns in the nearby convent. The doctor whom Walter is replacing was among the victims.
Walter had sought the dangerous assignment because he wanted to punish his wife, who, bored by her life in Shanghai and by his neglecting her because of his work, had entered into an affair with English Vice Consul Charlie Townsend (Schreiber). Led on by Townsend, she was devastated when, upon Walter’s discovering their affair, her lover had gone back on his word to divorce his wife and marry her. He explains that it would cost him dearly, career-wise. And so, far from the comfortable life in Shanghai, she and Walter go about their daily routines, inhabiting the same house, but not the same bed or room. Slowly, especially after she visits the convent where the kindly Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) conducts her on a tour of the school and clinic, and later, accepts her offer to help with the orphans, Kitty emerges from her shallow shell, learning of the good work that Walter has been doing in behalf of the people, her feelings toward her husband change. But can the embittered man ever forgive and accept her again?
Spoilers follow in the last few questions.
1) Why do you think, besides his attraction to Kitty’s beauty, that Walter proposes to her? How does her impetuous acceptance show the danger of such hasty marriages?
2) It is interesting that Walter went into a specialty rather than general medical practice: do you think this could have been due to his stiffness in relating to people? How do we see both him and Kitty grow during the length of the film?
3) Do you think there is really an “innocent party” in adultery? How might Walter, as well as Kitty’s shallow character, be a contributing factor to what happened?
4) According to those who have read the novel, the film adds some political/social depth to the story. Where do we see this in the film? What was the situation in China during the 1920s? How was the era of the colonial powers and their demands upon China for territory nearing the end?
4) We see the good that the Catholic nuns are doing in the village, but what about the charges against them by the cynical Walter? How was it true that the motives of the missionaries were a mixture during the era of missionary expansion in the 19th and early 20th centuries? How were imperialism and missions intertwined? What did this make Christianity look like in regards to the native peoples?
6) What is it that changes Kitty? How is such involvement in the lives of others often the best means of growing character? How is her treatment of and attitude toward the simple soldier guarding her a foretaste of her changed view of her husband?
7) How does Walter show that he too has grown? How is his water irrigation project a turning point, even affecting Col.Yu’s view of him? How is Walter’s fate a completion of his own redemption? A type of crucifixion?