Edward Norton has a reputation of being a troublemaker, and this is probably why lately he’s been in very few big productions and blockbusters. I’m ready to admit that it’s quite normal for producers to avoid an actor who, however good, modifies the scripts without anyone asking him to do so and discusses the directors’ choices while, theoretically, he should simply follow them! I’m not inventing anything, you can find a number of anecdotes for films like, for example, American History X (1998) and The Hulk (2008), to cite just two examples.
In the film I’m about to write, Norton worked as a producer as well as the leading actor and he managed to fight with some of the producers (the Chinese ones), and he also re-wrote the script by modifying his character’s part to his liking. He also personally selected the co-star actress, Naomi Watts. I’m talking about The Painted Veil (2006), directed by John Curran. The movie wasn’t greatly advertised and was a box office bomb which barely recovered his twenty million dollars budget. What about the movie itself? It’s a mixed bag.
The plot is as follows: in the early twentieth century, Dr. Fane (Norton) works on behalf of the British government in China. He manages to marry the beautiful Kitty (Watts) who takes this opportunity to escape from the clutches of his mother and, as soon as she can, she betrays the poor doctor (with Liev Schrieber, the number one suspect in the Scream saga!). The latter, sadistically, obtains a transfer to an area affected by a terrible cholera infection. Once they arrive there, they meet the only other white person in the area, Waddington (Toby Jones) and learn what it is like to live in a poor area of a country whose society is almost completely incomprehensible to them. I stop here in order to avoid spoilers.
What works in the movie? Thanks to the involvement of Chinese producers and having filmed most of the film in China, the sets and places depicted in the films are nothing short of splendid. Also, the historical reconstruction of China of the beginning of the twentieth century English colony still dominated by local superstitions and warlords is remarkable. For this we should thank Norton and the director who insisted on a good historical reconstruction, including the role of the nationalists and the cruelty of the cholera epidemic. All this remained in the film despite the protests of the Chinese producers who perhaps would have preferred a less faithful and more idealized version of the story.
The love story works too. The motivations of the characters are quite simple and it’s easy to predict how the plot will unfold, but movies like this don’t count on plot twists to succeed. On the other hand, the character played by Norton at the beginning of the film is decidedly negative due to his slightly excessive reaction to his wife’s betrayal, but then he turns into a progressive martyr who sacrifices himself to cure the villagers who are dying of cholera. Clearly Norton couldn’t resist: once he got his hands into the script, he made his character captivating and heroic in the eyes of a modern public. Let me tell you that this doesn’t play in favor of the quality of the film (a bit like Brad Pitt’s character in 12 Years a Slave who’s there to tell everyone that slavery is bad). But in fact there are practically no negative characters in the whole movie: even Waddington doesn’t simply have a concubine: he’s in love with her, and she’s in love with him! In short, the excellent historical reconstruction is affected by the inclusion of characters who are a little unrealistic (although perhaps this may be due to the book from which the story is taken; I haven’t read it so I cannot tell). Kitty herself changes from a spoiled aristocratic to a missionary who’s ready to die to save Chinese orphans! But I’ve written enough of the characters.
In the end, as a tormented love story, The Painted Veil works, and, although predictable (ending included), it has all the right elements of its genre. The film didn’t impress audiences when it came out, but being the third film based on the same book perhaps the theme had already been exploited to death? I don’t think so, since the previous films came out in 1934 and 1957, but who knows!? If you like the genre, I believe the film won’t disappoint you, and it’s absolutely unmissable if you like Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, who offer credible performances. But don’t expect a perfect movie. Ciao!