The Painted Veil

Provost's Film Series

April 15, 2010


Introduction written by Toddy Burton


"I looked at [the script for The Painted Veil] and said, 'I've been that guy – I have taken the hurt I've felt over something and turned it into punishment or anger.'  And what was beautiful in it to me is that it depicted how profoundly the act of forgiving somebody can change you and open you up to an experience of the world that is perhaps much more enlightening."

- Edward Norton speaking to Terry Armour, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 30, 2006

Released by the now defunct Warner Independent Pictures, The Painted Veil came and went from theaters in late 2006 with only the slightest recognition from audiences. Scoring big with critics, the film nonetheless failed to get a foothold at either the box office or on the awards circuit. A slow paced period romantic drama, the film seems like something out of another time altogether. But the film’s view of love speaks to the truth of human experience in a way rarely found in major motion pictures.


I feel it, so it must be true!

From Casablanca to Twilight, the typical Hollywood romance encourages audiences to embrace a world where falling in love involves entering into a fabulous and irrevocable state. Like Dorothy arriving in Oz, being in love is a palpable and exciting reality. In short, if you think you’re in love, you are. And once you’re in love, you stay that way. Neither Nazi soldiers nor Werewolves can break you apart. The presence of that love binds you to your mate with clarity and conviction. This idea promotes the notion that our emotions speak only in truth. What we feel equals what is true. And marriage? Well, that’s just a (seldom essential) part of the journey.

"I'm not knocking these films but The Wedding Planner or Failure to Launch—those are a particular type of female fantasy film. I don't think that [The Painted Veil] is that kind of a romance. The studio folks will probably say: 'This is an epic romance' and it is. But I would like to think that it's more in the spirit of films like Out of Africa or The English Patient—films that are rooted not just in a literary sensibility but rooted in really looking at the way that men and women hurt each other.

- Edward Norton speaking to Terry Armour, Chicago Tribune, December 30, 2006


Healing through Pain

The Painted Veil tells a story of marriage that is at once painful, flawed, frustrated, and true. The character of Kitty Fane (Naomi Watts) grew up in a privileged household, where her selfishness and overindulgent nature thrived. Her husband, Walter Fane (Edward Norton) operates his life in a restrained and serious nature, alien to Kitty’s world. Despite barely knowing her, Walter proposes to Kitty. She consents, understanding quite well that she does not (and will not) love her future husband. Though their broken marriage reaches a pinnacle of failure when Kitty enters into an affair with Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), their union seemed defeated from the start. After discovering the affair, Walter reacts with a stoic and furious pain, punishing his wife by taking her deep into a cholera epidemic in rural China. Trapped, Kitty consents.

"A part of [Walter] is closed off, and it's only when he gets the opportunity to loathe his wife that he begins to react like a human being. Ostensibly more mature than Kitty, he is, in truth, a stunted person, too. It's the mystery of attraction that these undeveloped people should choose, for a partner, the one person most guaranteed to provide them with an education through suffering.

The suffering is not limited to the marriage. The China of the 1920s is poor and disease-ridden, and the other-worldliness of it, as seen through Western eyes, is emphasized in Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography. Like Kitty, the viewer never feels at home in China, and the turbulent streets and even the picturesque countryside always hold a hint of threat. There are nuns along the way – notably Diana Rigg as the head of a Catholic hospital – to provide comfort and suggest, by their presence, the moral dimension in all this anguish. Still, there's no forgetting: Love is a dangerous land."

- Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 29, 2006

The resulting journey cracks open the pain felt on both sides of the marriage. And just like an injured bone that needs to be broken before it can be reset, so the marriage enters deeper into suffering. What follows is a delicate and emotionally resonant portrait of healing and love. It is through his pain that Walter comes to see his wife for who she really is: flawed, fragile, and innocently optimistic. And through her suffering, Kitty finds opportunities to serve others and honestly love her husband for his strength and sacrifice. The story of the movie demonstrates that romantic love is not easily defined, not simply packaged, and often full of messiness and pain.