Anna and the King
Screenplay : Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes (based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes (based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens) Jodie Foster (Anna Leonowens), Chow Yun-Fat (King Mongkut), Ling Bai (Tuptim), Tom Felton (Louis), Syed Alwi (The Kralahome), Randall Duk Kim (General Alak), Kay Siu Lim (Prince Chowfa), Melissa Campbell (Princess Fa-Ying), Deanna Yusoff (Lady Thiang), Keith Chin (Prince Chulalongkorn)
"Anna and the King" is visually beautiful, richly detailed, terribly long, and oddly unaffecting. One might even go so far as to say it's a little boring. For a movie that not only attempts to be a romance between people from difference worlds, but also an examination of an ancient culture moving into modernity, it barely registers as an emotional experience. Director Andy Tennant, who made the reimagined Cinderella tale "Ever After" (1998) much better than it deserved to be, is unable to work any kind of magic on this overlong and sadly languid costume drama.
That the movie is visually stunning cannot be ignored. The production design by Luciana Arrighi ("A Midsummer Night's Dream") and the art direction by Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat, Paul Ghirardani, and John Ralph is uniformly beautiful, as are the exquisite costumes by Jenny Beavan ("Sense and Senibility"), all of which are captured perfectly by the lens of seasoned cinematographer Caleb Deschanel ("The Black Stallion," "The Natural"). The film, shot primarily on location in Malaysia, certainly evokes a mystical, mysterious, and beautiful world. But, we've seen this kind of cinematic beauty before, and it's hardly enough to carry the entire film.
Jodie Foster stars as Anna Leonowens, a British widow with a young son who, in 1862, traveled to the small Eastern empire of Siam to teach the ways of the Western world to the 58 children of King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat), an old-world monarch who had realized that his country would not survive unless it began to adapt along with the rapidly changing world. At the time, both England and France were colonizing large portions of Asia, and Siam was one of the few countries that remained isolated from European influence.
This story was, of course, most famously told in the Rogers and Hammerstein stage musical "The King and I," which was adapted to the screen in 1956 by Walter Lang with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in the roles of Mongkut and Anna. The changing of the title from "The King and I" to "Anna and the King" announces that the point of view is no longer from only the Westerner, thus erasing some of the implicit racism of films like "Seven Years in Tibet" (1997) that rely entirely on the white perspective to understand people of color. Instead, "Anna and the King" views the story from both East and West, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Viewing a cultural collision of this sort from one point of view is complex enough, but to give both sides their due is a true challenge this movie is not up to facing. Tennant and screenwriters Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes tell "Anna and the King" in straight dramatic fashion, and small parts of the film work nicely. There is engaging interplay between Anna and Mongkut's oldest son, Prince Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin), a proud and sometimes obstinate boy who does not like the idea of this female British imperialist telling him what to do. There is also an affecting subplot about one of Mongkut's concubines, Tuptim (Ling Bai), who is forced against her will to leave her true love to live in the palace. When she continues to have correspondence with her outside lover, there are dire consequences that call into question the values of the Siamese judicial system.
Of course, this is where the film is at its most ambitious and where it fails the greatest. In trying to examine the nature of the Siamese culture, still deeply imbedded with superstition, brutal slavery, the subjugation of women, and complete allegiance to a mortal king who was seen as a god, and how it was influenced by Anna and her Western modernity, the film bites off much more than it can chew. The screenplay spends too much time developing meandering subplots, especially one involving marauding gangs of Burmese assassins and how they may or may not be controlled by the British.
These subplots are intended, I guess, to expound upon notions of cultural difference and to illustrate the need for Siam to improve the more brutal aspects of its society (this is most evident in the admittedly melodramatic plotline involving Tuptim). Of course, there is little to go by for comparison, as the "highly refined" and "civilized" Anna arrives with two Indian servants, reminding us that, at the time, England was plundering countries like India and exploiting its citizens in the dubious name of "colonization." Once again, in a better, more fully developed film, this would come across as a bitter irony. Here, it feels more like a lazy oversight that makes Anna look like a hypocrite.
As Anna, Foster, unfortunately, looks a bit uncomfortable with her refined British accent, and it takes a while to get used to her in tight bodices and huge hoop skirts. Foster is an excellent actress, but all throughout the movie she simply feels wrong in the part. She looks more nervous than inquisitive, and she often comes across as icy and distant, rather than free-thinking and idealistic.
Chow Yun-Fat, in one of his first major roles in an American film (he is one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong, thanks to his dynamic roles in films by action maestro John Woo), fares decidedly better as the king. One of Chow Yun-Fat's primary talents has always been in finding the humanity in hard, violent characters. All of his roles in Woo's films were of flawed men with great inner nobility, and here he conveys the same essence as Mongkut, a man with all the power in the world who senses that his world must change.
He has moments of deep, raging anger and frustration at this visiting foreigner criticizing his culture's way of life, but he has the dignity and the wisdom to hear her out and point out the hypocrisy in some of her statements. Mongkut emerges as the most fully embodied character, and when the film begins to drift toward unresolvable romance between him and Anna, the performances by both Foster and Yun-Fat let us know that the attraction is not so much sexual as it is based on mutual respect and admiration.
It is in these moments that "Anna and the King" really begins to work as drama and as history. Unfortunately, they occur in the last five minutes of the film, which is far too late to save it as a whole.
©1999 James Kendrick