Friday, May 11, 2007

Maugham's moment

Somerset Maugham, chronicler of the early 1900s, is in vogue again. One of his short stories, 'The Letter, is on at Wyndham's Theatre in the West End, and the film of another, 'The Painted Veil', is enjoying box-office success. In an afternoon of sheer indulgence yesterday I went to see both. Maugham is of interest because he qualified as a doctor but never practised. His medical training is evident in his writing, particularly in 'Of Human Bondage' which is not about S&M, but about the constraining nature of social obligation. 'Human Bondage' is one of my favourite novels. It's excruciating in places -- the protagonist, Philip Carey is infuriating but fascinating. Like his creator, Philip also spends time as a medical student. Descriptions of stigma (Philip has a club foot) are thought to be informed by bullying Maugham experienced as a result of his stammer.

'The Letter' and 'The Painted Veil' have parallels, aside from a penchant for white linen suits and panama hats. Both are set abroad and deal with issues of adultery, colonialism and corruption. 'The Letter' (Independent review here) stars Jenny Seagrove (of TV's Judge John Deed fame) as a woman accused of murder. Anthony Andrews is absolutely outstanding as her lawyer and friend of her husband. It's an engrossing, if somewhat outmoded, story, sumptuously produced. I was puzzled but the lighting effects which suspended time permanently at dawn in spite of most of the action taking place at night. This minor irritation aside, the sets were stunning.

'The Painted Veil' has landscape to rival 'The English Patient' of which it is faintly reminiscent. This is more obviously medical. The character of Walter Fane (Edward Norton) is a bacteriologist -- now there's a profession that rarely gets an outing in literature. He takes Kitty (Naomi Watts) to Shanghai with him, and then on to deal with a cholera outbreak in the back of beyond. Fane has a touch of Mr Darcy about him and Kitty is capricious society girl who finds herself out of her depth in a politically unstable, disease-wracked community. It's a portrait of a impulsive and ill-advised marriage which matures under desperate circumstances. I really loved this movie. It's worth seeing on the big screen for the cinematographic splendour of the Chinese landscapes.
I have resolved to read more of Maugham's work. He has an enviable talent for characterisation, realised very well in the stage play 'The Letter' and the film 'The Painted Veil'.

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