It is 1925, and British doctor Walter Fane, convinced of his wife Kitty's infidelity, accepts a post in the remote Chinese village of Mei-tan-fu during a deadly cholera outbreak. In this latest film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel, Edward Norton and Naomi Watts balance the intimate forces of trust, love and duty against a backdrop of grand, historical scale. Here the veil lifts on a harsh but beautiful world that begs the question: what can be gained after everything is lost?
Set against the stunning mountains of southern China and filmed almost entirely on location, the concept of the film first inspired Norton with its classical scope and feel. “Like anybody who loves movies, when you watch David Lean films or a movie like Out of Africa , you cannot help as an actor but think how fun it must be to have one of those kinds of experiences, what a challenge it must be to make films with that kind of scope,” he says.
To play Walter Fane, the infatuated and scorned bacteriologist, Norton assumed an English accent to add greater authenticity to the historical period. Norton says that Walter's ever-deepening complexities provided a keen dramatic thrust for each scene. “Anytime a character emerges in slices and keeps deepening and revealing levels that were not obvious on initial encounter, that's very compelling.”
Norton also served as a co-producer of the film and spent seven years attempting to bring Maugham's novel to the screen, reading numerous drafts of the ever-evolving script and eventually enlisting the talents of Australian actress Watts.
As Kitty, Watts plays the rebellious daughter of a wealthy London family who jumps at the chance to marry Walter and leave her oppressive family behind for the exotic mystery of Shanghai. Life in Shanghai with the bookish Walter proves tedious, however, and Kitty soon finds amorous comfort in the arms of the British vice-consul, played by Watts' real-life love, Liev Schreiber.
To punish Kitty's adultery, Walter accepts the dangerous post in Mei-tan-fu, and demands that Kitty join him in the cholera-infested village. Says Watts of her flawed heroine: “I loved Kitty from the moment I first read the script. She just kind of leapt off the page. She was sort of ahead of her time, or at least she thought she was, in refusing to conform to conventions.”
In the remote village, amidst the constant threat of disease and governmental upheaval, Walter and Kitty begin to repair a trust broken by betrayal.
“When [Kitty] has the affair, she's continuing to be a self-destructive person. And when [Walter] starts punishing her and they get to the new place, I just loved her transformation,” says Watts. “I felt that it was important to commit to these flaws in her so that the transformation is that much greater and her journey is more powerful.”
During Walter and Kitty's transformation, Norton and Watts delve into the deepest layers of intimacy, a process that required considerable emotional investment from both actors. “With the love scene between Walter and Kitty, it was great because it's such a pivotal point, and it's almost animalistic like the hunger and the desperation just to connect with a human being,” Watts says.
For such love scenes, Watts notes that as an actor, “you find yourself anticipating them a lot. You think, ‘oh, how do we see this?' and ‘how are we going to play it and how much am I going to show?' But once you're there, you're there.”
Norton adds that a love scene between two fully-realized characters is rarely frightening. “If it's embedded appropriately deep in the process so that there's trust and comfortability. I think that by the time we were doing it in this film, we wanted them to be together.”
From hatred to love, from strained distance to maturing acceptance, Norton says he believes that the story of Kitty and Walter addresses the fundamental challenges of all relationships between men and women. “It was a kind of romance that touched me. I felt like it was a story about the long struggle of men and women to actually understand each other in a forgiving way,” says Norton. “And I found that very touching.”
The Painted Veil is currently in select theaters.