This scenic, adamantly old-fashioned adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel relies on forceful performances to rise above its creaky tropes. Edward Norton plays a nerdy young Brit bacteriologist who impulsively marries independent “spinster” Kitty (the always incendiary Watts) and whisks her away to Shanghai, where she summarily cheats on him with a swaggering diplomat (Schreiber, who nicely carries off an unorthodox seduction scene). Incensed, the good doc does more whisking—this time to a remote, cholera-stricken village, where the couple is forced to reckon with their estrangement. A local commissioner and a Catholic nun (Jones and the still-lovely Rigg, both of whom provide welcome warmth) lend moral support.
John Curran and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner do a largely credible job of underscoring the characters’ imperial mind-set without resorting to anachronism, and the parallels between Kitty’s emotional bondage and China’s occupation aren’t grossly overdrawn. But there’s not a single fleshed-out Chinese character here, let alone a Chinese perspective, and another movie in which fetching white people require the deaths of nonwhite people in order to achieve personal fulfillment is the last thing anyone needs. Subtlety is commendable in a retrograde Hollywood weepie, but there’s such a thing as not being preachy enough. (Opens Wed 20; Click here for venues.)—Mark Holcomb