Ah, Greta Garbo. This Swedish actor played foreign women of many origins during her celebrated career and no one in America seemed to mind if her accent wasn’t quite right. She also played parts that took her characters all over the world. In The Painted Veil, Garbo is an Austrian girl who finds herself in uncivilized China and trapped in a story that offers no satisfactory solution to its plot.
When her sister leaves the family home following her marriage, Garbo’s Katrin finds herself persuaded into married life by her father’s scientist partner Walter, played by Herbert Marshall. The man, a bacteriologist, must immediately leave Europe to return to his work immunizing the residents of Hong Kong.
The transition into an eastern way of life is one challenge for Katrin, another is her husband’s abject absence. He is consumed by work developing vaccines, unlike his friend Jack (George Brent), a British attaché at the embassy. Jack, although married, spends plenty of time with the lonely Katrin and eventually corners her into a kiss. An affair begins from there.
Katrin convinces us she is in love for the first time with Jack, but when Walter learns of the affair, he demands a divorce only on the promise that Jack will also divorce his wife and marry Katrin. Walter has no such intentions. Angry, Walter lugs Katrin with him to a rural community that is thought to be the source of a cholera epidemic. The proximity to the disease is danger enough to the woman, who has nothing to occupy her time. Although she has proved herself selfish, Katrin will come to understand her husband’s work and fall in love with him.
Perhaps The Painted Veil would have been a better movie for me if the roles played by Brent and Marshall were reversed. The young Marshall has always been convincing as a suave, yet head-over-heels sort and one we can easily root for. Brent, on the other hand, is so lackluster and grinning in his every role that Katrin becomes clearly wrong in her affair. His behavior at the nearing of divorce is despicable, so he becomes even lower in our perspective as Katrin goes on pining.
Once in the cholera-ridden town, however, Marshall’s Walter becomes equally distasteful as he deliberately treats Katrin poorly. There appears to be no reconciliation for them, but the ending positions Katrin spilling vows of love and worship that seem no more genuine than Jack’s intentions to marry her.
Garbo is beautiful and perfectly dramatic as always, but the story lends little for the audience to cling to. We struggle to find a likeable character as the bad behavior by both men and Katrin’s betrayal of her wedding vows make all parties sinister to some degree. For me, The Painted Veil is a story of misery that leaves one feeling like he needs a vaccine himself.