The Painted Veil: A timeless love story | Sunday Observer

The Painted Veil: A timeless love story

3 October, 2021

The Painted Veil is a 2006 American drama film directed by John Curran. The screenplay by Ron Nyswaner is based on the 1925 novel of the same title by W. Somerset Maugham. Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Toby Jones, Anthony Wong Chau Sang and Liev Schreiber appear in the leading roles.

This is the third film adaptation of the Maugham book, following a 1934 film starring Greta Garbo and Herbert Marshall and a 1957 version called ’The Seventh Sin’ with Bill Travers and Eleanor Parker.


Before 1999, producer Sara Colleton sought to develop a script for ’The Painted Veil’. The script was frequently redrafted, as it was intended both to be close to the source material, and to take liberties with the source material, specifically to create a feminist version. Actor Edward Norton became involved with the project in 1999. Norton discussed why he liked the project.

“It’s very much a story about people getting beyond the worst in themselves and figuring out how to look at each other honestly, forgive each other for their failings and get to a better place... When I read it, I was very affected by it because in it I saw my own failings.”

He suggested casting Naomi Watts for the role of Kitty, but this did not take place until after she proved herself a bankable star with her performances in ’Mulholland Drive’ (2001) and ’21 Grams’ (2003).

When Watts joined the project, she recommended director John Curran, with whom she had collaborated on the 2004 film ’We Don’t Live Here Anymore’. The director’s expertise with that work convinced Watts and Norton that he would be capable of depicting the dysfunctional relationship in ’The Painted Veil’.

The project began development at producers Bob Yari and Mark Gordon’s Stratus Film Company, but when Stratus executive Mark Gill left to start Warner Independent Pictures, he took the project with him. Gill began production of the film in partnership with Yari. Gill was later fired before the film’s completion by Warner Bros. production president Jeff Robinov. This was said to contribute to the film’s marketing difficulties.

Yari and Warner Independent Pictures collaborated with a Chinese partner who was granted approval over the script and the finished film. The partnership permitted a budget of $19 million for ’The Painted Veil’. When the Chinese production company reviewed the film, its representatives were unhappy with the depiction of the Chinese uprising and the cholera victims, requesting that the scenes be revised. Norton and Curran expressed concerns that their studio accepted the censorship too quickly, with the director threatening to remove his name from the film. Their pressure resulted in limiting cuts from the film to 38 seconds.


Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and Norton collaborated on the screenplay for the film. They considered the 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham to be one-dimensional. Norton expanded the character of Walter Fane, giving him an enhanced role. He also had Walter make peace with his wife Kitty, leading to them falling in love with each other. Norton explained, “I like to think that we didn’t change the book so much as liberate it. We just imagined it on a slightly bigger scale, and made external some of what is internal in the novel.”

Norton described the novel as “almost unremittingly bleak” and believed that the author had thought that British colonials were unlikely to change. The actor said of his changes, “I went on the assumption that if you were willing to allow Walter and Kitty to grow... you had the potential for a love story that was both tragic and meaningful.” Norton considered ’The Painted Veil’ to be in the spirit of such films as ’Out of Africa’ (1985) and ’The English Patient’ (1996), seeing it as “rooted in really looking at the way that men and women hurt each other”.

Director John Curran suggested setting the film during 1925, when the events of the Chinese nationalist movement were taking place. Norton, who had studied Chinese history at Yale University, agreed with the suggestion. To detail scenes from the time period, Curran, Norton, and Nyswaner relied on excerpts from historian Jonathan Spence’s 1969 book ’To Change China’, which covered the inept efforts of Western advisers during these years. Norton said that the character Walter Fane served as “the proxy for the arrogance of Western rationalism.” He said that Fane was confused when the Chinese were not grateful for his help, saying, “Walter means well, but he’s the folly of the empire, and that adds a whole new dimension to what happens in the story. It’s a metaphor for the way empires get crushed.”


Filming took place on location in Shanghai, China. The director did not want to build a set for the village beset by cholera, and instead sought a rural area in China. He found Huangyao Ancient Town in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which served as the location for the village. The director described the location, “Even the Chinese crew members were amazed at the place we found... It was like going back in time.” According to Nyswaner, a large amount of time of the film production was spent negotiating with the Chinese government for the completion of the film, as there were disagreements over issues in the script.

Most of the film was shot in Guangxi. Director John Curran said, “We wanted this movie to be distinctly Chinese. We didn’t want it to look like a film that you could shoot in Canada or Mexico or Italy.” Line producer Antonia Barnard states that initially the film, like the novel, was to be set in Hong Kong; however, the crew realized Hong Kong of the time period would be difficult to replicate. They altered the story to set the plot in Shanghai; the crew shot “Shanghai for Shanghai in the period, and shot London scenes in Shanghai as well.”

On the film review aggregator website ’Rotten Tomatoes’, ’The Painted Veil ’has received an approval rating of 74% based on 143 reviews. On the similar website Metacritic, the film has received a metascore of 69 out of 100 based on 33 reviews, considered generally favorable reviews.