enduring Illusionist

Edward Norton eschews classic matinee-idol roles to play a variety of characters who are more than what they seem

January 08, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

With Edward Norton, what you see is what you get." At least that's what John Curran, the director of The Painted Veil, said of his unconventional star.

Neil Burger, the director of The Illusionist, sees more shadows. "Edward's an actor of amazing stature, intensely smart and, at times, I'd guess, an enigma even unto himself."

With his deceptively reedy voice and profile and his consummate performing skills, Norton, 37, has been a warm-blooded shape-shifter on- screen and a model of eloquence off-screen -- any gifted filmmaker would want him both as a collaborator and a spokesman for the team. From his breakthrough film, Primal Fear (1996) to three movies released within the past nine months -- Down in the Valley, The Illusionist and now The Painted Veil -- this actor has specialized in characters who aren't always who they appear to be. He has pulled off contradictory, fractured roles even in generation-defining films such as Fight Club (1999). To put it mildly, he resists typecasting. His fans of all generations follow him to see how far he can stretch his talent. He's the American Daniel Day-Lewis.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about the actor Edward Norton in the Today section yesterday and a film review in the Movies Today section Friday misidentified a Chinese setting in the film The Painted Veil. W. Somerset Maugham's novel is set in Hong Kong, but the film is set in Shanghai. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

In Curran's own career, he has created lucid movies about emotional deception, whether it's American college-town adultery in We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004), starring Naomi Watts, or British-colonial adultery in the China-set The Painted Veil, which co-stars Watts and Norton and opened in Baltimore on Friday.

But when Curran called from a Boston stop on his promotional tour, he explained, "Edward is up-front about who he is and what he's all about. I don't think there's a couple of different Edwards."

Norton is eager to speak for his generation, and, refreshingly, he's up front about his knowledge and enthusiasms, from ecology to poetry. "Edward's interests are so varied and his knowledge is so rich," Curran said, "I suppose people could mistake his multifaceted quality for a know-it-all quality. But nothing could interest him less than being a know-it-all."

Indeed, at a benefit premiere of The Painted Veil last month for the Howard Hospital Foundation, Norton's overriding message was that anything he knew paled before the skills at work at Howard County General Hospital. The event filled the Senator Theatre with friends Norton had made as the Columbia-raised grandson of the late James Rouse, that planned community's visionary designer, especially the medical professionals who've treated his family over the years.

Curran, also present, dubbed it "Deep in the Heart of Nortonville." But Norton was happy to move the spotlight off himself and onto "these doctors and specialists and surgeons who can diagnose you and heal you." At the same time, during an interview on the second floor while the film unspooled below, Norton acknowledged that what he does has universal uses, too -- including, perhaps, emotional healing.

The Painted Veil tells the story of a mismatched couple: Walter Fane, a British colonial bacteriologist in Hong Kong (Norton), and Kitty, a seemingly shallow London woman (Watts) who marries him in a desperate attempt to escape her family. After Walter discovers she's having an affair with a diplomat (Liev Schreiber), he takes Kitty with him to fight an exploding cholera epidemic in a remote village. They find common ground and hope for a happy future. What begins as a mingling of altruism, face-saving and punishment becomes a journey of understanding.

"I don't think there's a married couple at the Senator tonight who is not going to relate, I hope, to some aspect of taking your partner for granted, or judging them," said Norton. "The challenge of working on this film was of working on this relationship without passing judgment on Kitty and Walter and without creating simple foils."

Norton himself has been romantically linked with high-profile entertainers, including Courtney Love and Salma Hayek. But everything that's come out in the press about these past affairs suggests good feeling. Love recently said she regretted that she stopped practicing Buddhism and chanting because when she did those things, she got a great role in a film (Larry Flynt's wife in The People vs. Larry Flynt) and "a fantastic boyfriend" in Norton, who played Flynt's lawyer. While promoting The Painted Veil last month in Mexico, Norton said he was delighted by the success of the TV series Ugly Betty, which Hayek created, produced and appears in.

Norton did an uncredited rewrite on Frida, Hayek's 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic, and takes a hands-on approach to his productions. He's one of the producers of The Painted Veil and collaborated for a couple of years on the adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel with the screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia).

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