Anna And The King

on December 17, 1999 by Wade Major
The oft-told story of English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and her quasi-romance with King Mongkut of Siam receives its most mature screen treatment to date in "Anna and the King," a lavish period drama powered by the on-screen chemistry of Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat.
Previous screen versions of the story have included 1946's "Anna and the King of Siam" starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, and the famed 1956 live-action adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I," with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, as well as last year's animated "The King and I" and the short-lived 1972 television series "Anna and the King" (with Brynner and Samantha Eggar). Lest they be accused of "desecrating" what has become a classic of the American stage and screen, the makers of the new "Anna and the King" have wisely chosen to pursue as realistic a take on the story as possible--returning to the diaries of Anna Leonowens themselves to deliver the requisite credibility.
At first glance, the story seems familiar enough: A widowed single parent struggling to raise her son Louis (Tom Felton) during the Victorian 1860s, Anna (Foster) accepts a position with King Mongkut (Chow) to educate the King's children--all 58 of them. Being the feisty sort, however, Anna sees little point in giving the children a Western-style education when their superiors remain steeped in such Byzantine traditions. The King, of course, has more pressing matters to contend with, namely the preservation of Siam's independence, a goal that ultimately forces him to stake his ground against such adversaries as Western imperialism, Burmese aggression and even traitors in his own ranks. Yet, through it all, Anna persists, eventually winning the King's respect and, it is implied, his love.
Filmed on location in Malaysia, and featuring some of the most opulent sets ever created for a feature film, "Anna and the King" is nothing if not a feast for the eyes and ears. George Fenton's lyrically romantic score, production designer Luciana Arrighi's sets and master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's luminous imagery are but the highlights of a splendidly decorative piece of cinematic tinsel--an old-fashioned epic romance as might have graced screens in the 1950s or 1960s. Director Andy Tennant ("Ever After") shows a unique aptitude for handling both the epic and the intimate demands of the story, while simultaneously restraining the material's natural tendencies toward saccharine melodrama. In fact, despite the overtly romantic tone, the film goes to great lengths to correct the revisionism of previous efforts--treating English imperialism less favorably, and Siamese culture more favorably, than would have been deemed acceptable a mere 30 years ago.
As for chemistry, Chow and Foster are perfect casting--stars whose command of their craft and the camera remain all but unmatched anywhere in the world. Chow, in particular, appears more comfortable and charismatic than at any time since his transition to Hollywood films--manifesting, for the first time, the full measure of the charm that has made him the most respected and honored Asian actor of his generation. Mainland star Bai Ling is also a noteworthy standout in her supporting turn as a young concubine.
If one must find fault with the film, it is a fault to be had with the source material, namely Leonowens' diaries, which have raised more than a few scholarly eyebrows since they were first published. But such shortcomings have little bearing on what is ultimately one of the season's most intelligent and rewarding surprises--for a change, a live-action family film with brains. Starring Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat, Bai Ling, Tom Felton, Syed Alwi, Randall Duk Kim and Keith Chin. Directed by Andy Tennant. Written by Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes and Andy Tennant & Rick Parks. Produced by Lawrence Bender and Ed Elbert. A Fox release. Period Romance. Rated PG-13 for some intense violent sequences. Running time: 148 min
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