The year is 1925, and Kitty (Naomi Watts) is an upper class socialite closing in on an age when a proper lady must find a husband. To remain unwed much longer would be highly unbecoming, not to mention humiliating for her exceedingly socially conscious mother.
Bored with her privileged lifestyle anyway and yearning for escape, Kitty accepts a proposal of marriage from Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton), a quiet, serious bacteriologist who moves the new couple to Shanghai.
In the strange city, the Fanes venture into British colonial society, where they are introduced to English Vice Consul Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber). While Walter dedicates himself to his work and to his new wife, Kitty embarks on an adulterous affair with Charlie.
After Walter learns of her indiscretion, he accepts a job in a remote village in China ravaged by the deadly cholera epidemic. Seized by vengeance, he forces a despondent Kitty to accompany him.
In the village of Mei-tan-fu, Kitty begins to confront the reality of her surroundings. Amid the human wreckage of the cholera epidemic, both spouses find new purpose in life.
Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham.