The movie opens with a prone Ofelia, blood trickling down her face, thinking back over the past month, and it’s possible that what follows is a fantasy—the vision of a critically wounded girl searching for consolation in a myth of princesses, heroic self-sacrifice, and eternal life. But the supernatural has a place in all of Del Toro’s work. Weaned on horror pictures, he made ghosts a central element of his first stab at the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone (2001)—another fairy tale in which children die horribly. The mixture of elements is jarring but somehow organic: In Del Toro’s universe, political outrage and realistic violence mingle with stop-motion creatures whose hambone voices evoke decades of el cheapo Mexican vampire movies. His palette here is deep-toned, with bottomless blacks and supersaturated oranges and blues—as if the Walt Disney of Pinocchio had collaborated with Goya. When the captain beats in the face of a guiltless peasant, it’s under a storybook crescent moon. Anti-Fascist directors can be awfully cruel.
Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth cap a deflating year at the movies, in which even an old Republican like Clint Eastwood exploded the heroic archetypes of the Greatest Generation, in which the birth of the CIA was presented (in Robert De Niro’s much-underrated The Good Shepherd) as the birth of moral relativism. If this isn’t the End of Days, it’s a wake-up call for Americans: the end of our daze.
The Painted Veil at least recalls a more optimistic era, in which white people journeyed to Third World countries and treated the sick and cared for orphans and discovered, in the midst of death, a higher purpose. The new film, directed by John Curran, is an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about a shallow, adulterous flapper type (played here by Naomi Watts) whose spirituality is awakened in the middle of a cholera epidemic in rural China—in a lush, verdant, mountainous hellhole to which she has been dragged by her buttoned-up but vengeful bacteriologist husband (Edward Norton). Maugham’s white-savior fantasy has been cut with a dose of 21st-century political awareness: The superstitious Chinese want to cut their saviors into tiny pieces. On the other hand, the heroine’s religious awakening has been romanticized—even, in a most un-Maugham-like way, sexualized. The movie makes for a good old-fashioned wide-screen wallow. Norton isn’t remotely credible, but Toby Jones is dandy as a sleazeball with a core of decency, and Watts is so open, so soulfully petulant, so transcendentally pretty, that even Maugham might reconsider the pleasures of the flesh.