Third time out for Somerset Maugham’s exceptionally readable novella spells out every motivation and warms up the chilly leads for a big weepy finish. Edward Norton & Naomi Watts sweat to stay in character as the mismatched couple who fight infidelity (a commanding perf from Liev Schreiber) and cholera in China. But the modern taste for film realism largely subverts the echt Maugham tone of calm surface/raging undertow so subtly caught in Greta Garbo’s 1934 version, probably the best of her lesser-known vehicles. In that earlier filming, the posh settings and comfortable clothes for Garbo, cuckolded hubby Herbert Marshall and potent lover-boy George Brent remain nearly as unblemished as Maugham’s measured prose. Thanks, no doubt, to the restrictions of the old Hollywood Production Code, we have to tease out the changing levels of masochism & eroticism in Maugham’s artificially balanced structure on our own; it adds an impression of psychological depth you may find missing from the remake.
DOUBLE-BILL/READ ALL ABOUT IT: In addition to Garbo’s 1934 beauty & this 2006 version, there’s also a 1957 remake with Eleanor Parker renamed THE SEVENTH SIN. They all hold interest, but even Maugham-ophobes might give the book a try.