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Love in the Time of Cholera:
Edward Norton on The Painted Veil

An online exclusive interview

Edward Norton as Walter Fane and Naomi Watts as Kitty Fane in The Painted Veil

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

By Clara Rose Thornton


On this, the first and last day of his Chicago press run for The Painted Veil, a melancholic rumination on the criminal impulses of love, the pitfalls of Western cultural commandeering and the nature of forgiveness, Edward Norton looks a bit melancholy himself. It’s late evening and he’s been subjected to a barrage of radio, television and newspaper interviews throughout the day, critics and pseudo-critics pulling and nipping and tucking as most actors and directors complain about after these necessary parades. His appearance is more akin to his character Alan Isaacman in The People vs. Larry Flynt or Holden Spence in Everyone Says I Love You than his larger-than-life embodiments of faux masculinity in American History X and Fight Club. His sideswept hair and thin frame are offset by blue denim, a gray blazer and a conservative, black button-down shirt. He’s like a little country boy set before a pack of wolves, woeful and timid, yet ready to brandish the stick he’s hiding behind his back.

In The Painted Veil, Norton plays Walter Fane, a somber, if not dull, bacteriologist from London in the 1920s. He’s joined by Naomi Watts as Kitty, the frivolous, upper-class object of his affection. Kitty is nearing the abomination of entering her 30s as an unwed woman, much to the chagrin of her judgmental mother. Through a flip proposal of marriage from Walter, she sees an opportunity to escape the trappings of her privileged life. Walter moves the couple to Shanghai, where he’s been working as a member of the British colonialist scientific milieu. Though Kitty knew she did not love this overly precise, meditative scientist, she was nonetheless unprepared for the boredom of her married life. Taking solace in colonial society, she meets English Vice Consul Charles Townsend (a quietly brilliant Liev Schreiber) and embarks upon a torrid affair. When he learns of her adultery, Walter accepts a job in a cholera-ravaged rural town in southern China, Mei-tan-fu, and forces Kitty along as vengeance. The darkness in the eyes of this scorned man is visceral; he has seemingly convinced himself that he wants his wife to catch cholera and die. He does not inoculate her, he forces her to take the bedroom of a child recently dead from the disease, and bitterly treats her like an annoying insect that he can’t squash for etiquette’s sake.

“[Walter’s] response to getting hurt is to get angry — I don’t want to say it’s a classic male response, but I felt in [Walter and Kitty’s] dynamic and in Walter’s reaction things that were eternal about men, women and how they respond to each other,” Norton explains. “I don’t normally relate to characters that I play — I find myself drawn to things that feel exotic from my own experience. Yet there were things in The Painted Veil that felt closer to home.”

Bruised egos, inner torment and fractured relationships are par for the course for Norton’s characters, so this statement sounded a bit frilly. After a gentle nudge he responded, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “I felt like there were things in these characters’ experience and their relationship together that I recognized in my own savagery.”

Norton was born into a privileged family in Boston on August 18, 1969. During his schooling at Yale, he developed an intense interest in Chinese history. This fascination stayed with him, and though he “didn’t go out hunting for a movie about China,” he asserts, “when I came across this that was certainly part of my enthusiasm; the feeling of going to China and making a film was high priority.”

Walter and Kitty Fane’s psychic gulf provides the basis of the film, and Norton executes Walter’s underlying intensity with eerie accuracy. But the historical and cultural setting is largely what informs the story. China under British rule in the mid-Twenties, locked in an uproar after British troops shot innocent Chinese workers in Shanghai, was not a hospitable environment to Westerners. In the midst of a cholera epidemic laying waste to rural areas, Western doctors and scientists came to the country with optimistic, albeit smug, ideas about how to save these “primitive” people from themselves. The film is a treatise on the fragility of romance on the surface, with the constant rumbles of imperialism’s follies beneath.

Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) adapted the script from M. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel of the same name. Nyswaner long dreamed of adapting his literary hero’s work, and when Norton came onboard the fledgling project in 1999, they went about reworking his initial draft. “Ron’s first adaptation was extremely faithful to the novel. It was quite different in some of its narrative feats, especially at the end. When I first started talking to Ron, to be honest, no one wanted to make the movie because the novel is unremittingly bleak. It’s much more bleak than the film. I don’t think Somerset Maugham had a very high opinion of British colonials, and he took a fairly dim view of people’s capacity for change. There are rumors that Kitty is semi-based on his wife whom he hated. In the novel [Walter and Kitty] forgive each other much less and she learns much less. It’s not exactly uplifting. At a certain point I said to Ron, ‘We may need to take these characters and imagine them going further than Maugham did, and open up the film to the lens of China a little more, too,’ which I think was my biggest contribution.”

Norton continues, “It’s a very claustrophobic little novel about the psychological distance between this man and woman. It’s really not about China, or the history of China, or anything like that. It’s about the gulf between these people and their failure to understand each other. I thought for a long time about what ‘the painted veil’ actually meant. Naomi and I talked about it a lot, and I think what [Maugham’s] getting at is that at the end of the day in all of our relations with people we tend to interact first with something we project onto the object of our affection. ‘The painted veil’ is a reference to the illusion that we put in front of the truth of things. It’s the illusions we have about people, about situations — the way we want to think life is. The story is about how these people respond when their illusion gets torn away.”

Though appreciative of the book’s beauty, both Norton and director John Curran — known for We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), a spare character study about the corrosion of marriages — felt that China needed a bigger role in their version. “[Ron and I] certainly opened it up to the landscape of China, but John came in and said, ‘Well, this is too vague. If it’s going to take place in China it needs to take place in a moment. There has to be a context that’s specific.’ He found this moment in 1925, when British troops shot the workers in the Shanghai port and a huge explosion of anti-foreign sentiment swept all through the country and created this terrifying moment for the different Europeans living in China. John initially said, ‘Wouldn’t that be great to create even more of a sense of danger and threat for [Walter and Kitty] as they’re out there, apart from the cholera?’ They’re in this moment in which everybody, literally, was attacking foreigners at random. But also, as I worked on it, I couldn’t help looking at Walter as a stand-in for that uniquely Western arrogance: going into other people’s cultures, mucking around and telling them how to fix their country. I think that added a level of resonance, and it did give me an access point for Walter that was not just emotional; that you could read about.

“When I think about movies that have meant a lot to me they’ve generally been movies that have in some way been a document of the time. I like films that investigate the experience that people were having at a certain moment… I don’t think they’re at the core of the movie, but the secondary themes of [The Painted Veil] — the folly of colonialism, the folly of people trying to bring their own version of rationality to bear on someone else’s culture — reminded me of something. I can’t think what.” And with that, a cock of the head and a wry smirk betrayed his not-so-subtle comparison to America’s current military ventures overseas.

“It was in the background of the film, but it really was a period a lot like what we’re seeing in Afghanistan or Iraq today. It was an anarchic period where the old dynasty was falling away and the place was overrun with regional warlords and all kinds of factions and chaos and people telling foreigners to get out and leave them alone. It was an incredibly tumultuous period that didn’t last for very long but was pretty traumatic.”

Norton believed in the project so much that he took on the role of co-producer. Heightening an already astronomical task was the fact that The Painted Veil is the first Western film to be shot in China in a long time, and is believed to be only the second in history. The production team struck a deal with the government, officially making the film a Chinese/American co-production that will be released in China as a Chinese film. As Norton puts it, “In exchange for a unique degree of access and for Warner Bros. being able to distribute the film directly in China, the government film bureau had an unusually high amount of approval authority over our script and our final cut. It was not a process without some real ‘uh-oh’ kind of moments.”

When asked about the trials of securing and shooting in such locations as the tiny, 800-year-old town of Huang Yo, a smile shoots across Norton’s face. “Let me just say for the record: It’s a terrible job and I don’t recommend it. [Laughs] A very high-labor, low-reward ratio. But I think that you take it on when you know that no one else is doing it and it’s the only way to get something that you care about done. That was certainly the case here. It eats up all of your natural downtime as an actor, which I tend to treasure. There’s that great Alfred Hitchcock line, ‘Directing a movie is like getting pecked to death by a thousand pigeons,’ and I think that applies to producing as well. It never ends; there’s always something coming at you from some angle that’s attempting to destabilize the little bubble you’re trying to create. If it’s not money not showing up in the account, it’s the Chinese government having a beef with the way one of your scenes depicts Chinese peasantry, and if it’s not that it’s a location falling through — it’s one thing after another. When you’ve got a filmmaker who’s really got an idea about what he wants to do, which John did, you try and do everything you can to facilitate getting that guy what he needs. If he needs a helicopter shot so you can see the whole river valley at the very end of the movie, and the one helicopter in southern China is trying to hold you up for an insane amount of money…” He pauses, then laughs. “Those are the moments where I say, ‘Where’s Jerry Bruckheimer when you need him?'"

The film’s poster art may be a bit misleading. It depicts Walter and Kitty on a boat on the Li River, her head on his shoulder in contemplative reverie, with the mountains looming majestically in the background. The tagline reads: “Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people.” It’s true that the couple undergo a backwards evolution into love, but this film has more in common with Norton’s recent strange opus Down in the Valley than romantic films “about people who meet because their dogs’ leashes get entangled.” Though at times I found the dialogue and set-pieces somewhat contrived, the film certainly sets itself apart from the average period piece. I believe the emotional engagement audience members may have with the film from the onset, well before Walter reveals what a sadist he can be, will be carried by a natural association with the darkly complex nature of Norton’s oeuvre. There seem to be definite links of a thematic nature from character to character, even in lighter entertainment like The Score and The Italian Job — the latter of which he did out of contractual obligation only. Norton is wary of identifying any such narrative threads in his work, but enjoys the mental tango of listening to others’ theories.

“I’m not being sarcastic [when I say] I’m always interested when other people find a thread from one film to another that I haven’t observed. I don’t tend to analyze them as a group… At the Shanghai Film Festival they wanted to do a retrospective. I got this email from somebody saying, ‘They want to know what the theme of your series should be.’ And I went, ‘I don’t know, that’s not for me to decide, ask someone else. It’s your festival. It wasn’t my idea.’ They came back and with typical Chinese brevity they said it was, ‘the search for the spiritual center in the new youth generation.’ I thought that was incredible; I cut it out of the program and put it on my refrigerator. I look at it and it’s like, “Ah, that’s what I’ve been doing!”


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