The first two acts of this W. Somerset Maugham adaptation are fantastic: Naomi Watts plays a woman who marries stodgy bacteriologist Ed Norton out of desperation and cheats on him with Liev Schreiber as soon as they arrive at his home in Shanghai. To punish her and himself, Norton takes her into the interior, to a village ravaged by cholera. The way the two steer their wrecked relationship through the lush landscape stalked by death is terrific–it’s sort of a grown-up version of Battle Royale, in which the stakes of love are ratcheted up to 11: if you leave me, you’ll die a grisly death. Toby Jones (Truman in Infamous) provides the cynical but helpful foreigner, and there are nuns.

I was less fond of the third act, in which Chekhov’s Law is adhered to much too slavishly: if there’s cholera around, somebody’s gonna get it! Still, The Painted Veil is big classic Hollywood cinema, splendidly engaging, marvelously acted and shot, sumptuous and emotional. The real mystery is why this film, far better than The Departed and most of the other nominees, didn’t get any kind of attention at Oscar time. In decades past, this would have been exactly the kind of thing the Academy would’ve gone gaga over. As a sign of how much times as changed, the The Painted Veil wasn’t even technically released by a major studio but by their “indie” distributor Warner Independent. It was drowned out in December’s mad movie rush, and now the official site is hocking the DVD as “just in time for mother’s day!

The Painted Veil. John Curran, 2006. ***