SAN FRANCISCO - Not long after Walter Fane marries his gloriously depthless wife Kitty in “The Painted Veil,” the couple arrives in Shanghai, where Kitty proceeds to unravel their marriage like a ball of yarn. Confronted with her treachery, Walter announces they are leaving immediately for the interior of China, where he will continue his work as a bacteriologist by fighting a cholera epidemic in a remote village.
Sulky and unrepentant, Kitty (played by Naomi Watts) characteristically demands to know what’s in it for her. “Why should I go?” she screams at her cuckolded husband. Walter (Edward Norton) draws himself fully erect and reminds her of her duties as an Englishwoman of the 1920s.
“To cheer and comfort me,” he replies acidly.
When “The Painted Veil” opens, “Why should I go?” is a question that may occur to moviegoers, too. The answer may well be somewhat the same: To cheer. Period melodramas about Chinese cholera outbreaks - even ones based on the novels of W. Somerset Maugham - seem unlikely to rouse America’s teenagers from their Nintendos. So why did Norton, who is one of the film’s producers in addition to playing its moral beacon, spend eight years struggling to get it made?
During a recent visit to San Francisco, the actor - who was nominated for an Oscar in his feature film debut, the 1996 thriller “Primal Fear,” and again for playing a neo-Nazi in “American History X” in 1998 - said his obsession grew out of an experience he had as a teenager, watching his parents emotional reaction to “Out of Africa.”
“I felt this was an opportunity to make one of those films like `Out of Africa’ or `The English Patient.’ They only come along once in a while, those films that take you away to an exotic and inherently romantic place, but that also have a kind of weight to their story that makes them timeless. And that anchors the superficial romance in a romance that’s meaningful, some kind of story about life as we can relate to it.”
Norton has piercing blue eyes that he uses to force you to take everything he says almost as seriously as he does. And that sober side of him - a perfect fit for Walter Fane - is not a big fan of traditional romantic movies from Hollywood.
“I’m not immune to romantic stories, but I don’t find myself getting hooked by these things that I call spoon-fed romances, or the manufacturing of romance, which is really just charm in a way,” he says. “The reason this particular story grabbed me was that it seemed to have these levels behind levels that were really compelling. It depicts romance as a process of grown up people struggling with each other to come to some deeper understanding.”
Norton was not familiar with Maugham’s novel before he read the adaptation by Ron Nyswaner, writing his first film since “Philadelphia” was nominated for an Oscar in 1994. “I wasn’t dying to do a Maugham movie,” says Norton, whose Anglophilia doesn’t extend much beyond Graham Greene novels. “This film is a significant departure from the book. It’s inspired by Maugham’s characters, who achieve a romantic evolution in the movie that they really don’t in the book.”
Nyswaner’s initial treatment of the material was much more faithful to the novel, but he and Norton found no takers for it. “To be honest, it’s so unremittingly bleak that people just weren’t responsive to it,” Norton says. “At a certain point, we started asking ourselves, `If you could see these characters do better than they do in the book, where would they go? What would happen?’”
As they revised the script, the first place they decided to go was out of the characters’ heads, and into the heart of China. “It was thrilling to film a movie in a place where no one had filmed, that would show a landscape to people that I think maybe they’ve only seen in Chinese scroll paintings,” Norton says.
The final obstacle to getting the picture made was finding a suitable actress to play Kitty. Norton wanted the relatively unknown Watts, but the studios were initially cool to her. Only after Watts was nominated for an Oscar in “21 Grams,” and cast as the human lead in “King Kong” did the film’s backers decide they wanted her.
But after an eight-month location shoot on “King Kong,” the last thing she wanted was to jump right into another movie being shot in a location as distant as China. In what may have been his best performance of 2004, Norton used all his powers of persuasion to convince Watts to join him in the middle of nowhere to tell a timeless story. Why did she do it?
“To cheer and comfort me,” Norton says.