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JACKI LYDEN, host:

To go with your English breakfast you might want to pick up an English novel. Something, say, by W. Somerset Maugham, or alternatively, in a few cities in this weekend and many more in early January, you could head for a movie theater, because there's a new film adaptation of Maugham's romantic epic, "The Painted Veil." Bob Mondello has a review.

BOB MONDELLO: When we first spy Walter and Kitty, played by Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, they're traveling overland through a lush and sweltering Chinese landscape in the 1920s. There's clearly something wrong between them but it's not quite clear what. Walter is a British bacteriologist come to tamp down a cholera epidemic. Kitty is a London socialite who's not quite sure how she got here. As she remembers, it all started innocently enough. Walter had come to a few parties at her parent's house and then brought her flowers.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Painted Veil")

Mr. EDWARD NORTON (Actor): (As Walter) I came to see you to ask you if you'll marry me.

Ms. NAOMI WATTS (Actress): (As Kitty) You could knock me down with a feather.

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) Could you not tell that I'm in love with you?

Ms. WATTS: (As Kitty) You never showed it.

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) Oh. Well I, I wanted to. It's difficult. I - but there it is.

Ms. WATTS: (As Kitty) Right. I'm not sure that's very well put.

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) No. Do you see how clumsy I am? I'm terrible at these sort of things, but the thing is I've got to get back to China very soon. I don't have time to be cautious.

Ms. WATTS: (As Kitty) I've never thought of you in that way.

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) I think I improve greatly upon acquaintance.

Ms. WATTS: (As Kitty) Oh, I'm sure you do.

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) I'd do anything in my power to make you happy.

MONDELLO: And so they wed, Kitty approaching marriage as she had most things in life, without really thinking. And in Shanghai, with Walter distracted by work, she is miserable until she meets a dashing diplomat at a Chinese opera that's more or less impenetrable. She's fascinated when he explains that the opera's story is about a girl far from home, sold into slavery, weeping for the happiness she lost, for the loneliness she's found.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Painted Veil")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) She weeps for the love she'll never feel. And the mouth she'll never kiss.

Ms. WATTS: (As Kitty) Is that really what she's saying?

Unidentified Man: (As character) Actually, I haven't a clue what she's on about. I don't speak Chinese.

MONDELLO: They fall into an affair and it's that that causes Walter to pack her up and hustle her off to the interior, where she mostly begs him to just talk with her.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Painted Veil")

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) What is it that you want from me?

Ms. WATTS: (As Kitty) Perhaps I just want us to be a little less unhappy.

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) You're mistaken in thinking that I'm unhappy. I have far too much to do here to think of you very much at all.

Ms. WATTS: (As Kitty) That's exactly what I'm trying to say. I feel useless.

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) What do you propose that I do about that?

Ms. WATTS: (As Kitty) For God's sake Walter, will you stop punishing me? Do you absolutely despise me?

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) No, I despise myself.

Ms. WATTS: (As Kitty) Why?

Mr. NORTON: (As Walter) For allowing myself to love you once.

MONDELLO: Maugham set all this against the background of a cholera epidemic that forces Walter to rethink his approach to the world even as Kitty is rethinking hers to marriage. As a British colonialist, Walter figures he's just there to help the locals and expects to be welcomed with open arms. So he's a little surprised when the villagers don't cotton to his modern, Western notions. Sound familiar? Well, director John Curran makes sure that connections to today's culture clashes are there to be noted, but only in the context of the intimate story of a marriage coming unglued far from home.

He filmed exclusively in China, the first time a major Western picture has been allowed to do that in decades. Shanghai stands in not just for old Shanghai, but also for London in the 1920s, and the majestic hills of Guangzhou Province, wreathed in a seemingly painted veil of fog, tower of Maugham's passionate foreigners as they plunge into and out of love in a time of cholera. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Robert Siegel will interview Edward Norton about the making of "The Painted Veil" tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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