Anna and the King (1999) ** 3/4
Directed by Andy Tennant. Written by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes, based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens. Photography, Caleb Deschanel Editing , Roger Bondelli. Production design, Luciana Arrighi. Music, George Fenton.Produced by Lawrence Bender & Ed Elbert. Cast: Jodie Foster (Anna), Chow Yun-Fat (King Mongkut), Bai Ling (Tuptim), Tom Felton (Louis), Syed Alwi (the Kralahome), Randall Duk Kim (General Alak), et al. A Fox 2000 Pictures release. 2 hours and 28 minutes. PG-13
The British woman Anna Leonowens (1834-1914) did exist. When she was 24, her husband -- a Major of the Indian Army-- died. She lived in Singapore with her two children when, in 1862 (she was then about 28) she accepted the offer of Siam's King Mongkut, to come to the palace in Bangkok and educate his many, many children. She was a teacher here for five years. Later she wrote two books about her experience. In this century, Margaret Landon, an American who had spent over ten years in Siam, upon her return to the USA wrote articles about Mrs. Leonowens. Later (1941), in an amalgam of biographical and historical facts, plus fiction, she published a novel based on Anna's life. This became the 1946 film, "Anna and the King of Siam" with Rex Harrison in his first American movie and Irene Dunne.
Then came the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical "The King and I," from the Landon novel. Yul Brynner, in his first leading role, was the King. Later yet, the stage musical became a movie musical, also with Brynner (who won one of the films 5 Oscars) and Deborah Kerr.
The December 1999 release is mostly Instant Visual Gratification. Extremely lavish, beautifully produced, staged and photographed, it was filmed in Malaysia and not Thailand, which has officially banned all Anna/King movies. Still, at two-and-a-half hours it is even longer than "The King and I" which was stretched out by song and dance.
Thailand is the modern name of Siam, as most people know. Or do they? A newspaper article today reports: "A survey out last month found that among 500 students ages 12 to 17 from across the country, one-third reported learning about the war in school. The study, commissioned by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, shows that nearly one-third couldn't correctly identify Vietnam's continent; 3%, or 15 students, named North America." And that:"...when veterans ask students who won the war, as many as half say the United States, even though one- to three-quarters have relatives who fought."
The basic story is the confrontation of East and West and the friendship (more exactly what the French call an "amitie amoureuse") between the king and the governess. I will not waste space by summarizing a plot familiar from the earlier versions to many. Anna is put in charge of the King's boys and girls, 58 of them in this version. His Majesty has several dozen wives and concubines, and this in Bangkok which today is the sex-for-hire capital of the world. However, nowhere do we even glimpse a bare breast, or a soupcon of lovemaking.
The monarch is played by Chow Yun-Fat, a superstar of Hong-Kong action films. Except for his approving an execution --but what's a beheading or two compared to contemporary screen mayhem?-- the demi-God Mongkut is portrayed by Mr. Chow (or is it Mr. Yun-Fat?) as a good-looking, fine speaker of English and above all as a sensitive and truly sweet man. As in real life, the King tries to initiate opening Siam to the West.
Anna arrives in Siam with her lively son Louis, a boy not impressed by titles or ceremonials. She does bring with her a sort of jingoism (though the term was not born until 1887), which could be summed as "There's one right way, It is the British way."
But then, this is a 1999 movie. It has to be Politically Correct. Not only is there no hint of the old Britannia's disrespect of WOGs (Worthy Oriental Gentlemen, a supercilious appellation), but Anna with miraculous speed learns some Siamese, quickly appreciates the strange new ways and quirks, fully (well, almost fully) understands the people and their land. While always polite, she is outspoken, a true Women's Libber.
Jodie Foster does this with cool, elegance, a pointy face and a reserve that make her hidden feelings quite British. British too is her accent. Having read somewhere a denigration of that accent (critics will say anything) I checked out some reviews from London--where the movie is in 42 theaters. The critics confirmed that her Brit-speak was very good.
Now, except for the splendid production values, Mr. Yun-Fat steals the show in ways which are subtle compared to those of Rex and Yul. Those two got much mileage from their theatricality. They were, in their way, little Caesars vis-a-vis all, including Anna. Rex was a pre-echo of his autocratic Professor Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady." His main weapon was his voice. Yul's was his physical energy and bluster. Both were clearly enjoying their rather comic, "fun" roles. But here, the King is a thoughtful fellow, a thinker even, vigorous yet on the gentle side -- and a crypto-romantic. He calls attention to himself more by quietness than by flamboyance.
Countering much of Anna's political correctness is the portrayal of Britain's expansionist policy. Queen Victoria is not yet Empress of India (1876) but her country's imperialism is woven into the story, notably through a crass merchant, Mr. Kincaid, and politely haughty diplomats, especially a Lord played by Mister Superjowls, Geoffrey Palmer, familiar as Lionel in the TV series "As Time Goes By."
The theme of British interventionism runs throughout, but in a spasmodic, un-rounded way. It starts with attacks by killers who would destabilize the Siamese monarchy. Presumably, they come from neighboring Burma, which is a pawn of Perfidious Albion. This leads to a murky political subplot, with surprises which are essentially unnecessary, distracting, implausible--in fact silly-- and clichés such as blow-them-ups found in action flicks. The movie's ending is downright soupy.
The bad guys are initially called "death squads," which is an anachronistic expression. There is no lack of anachronisms or historical goofs. In the film, at his first ever European-style reception for foreigners, the King's brood sings "Daisy, Daisy" years before the bicycle built for two became a reality. His Majesty, in his first ever dance (he had been a monk for many years), and, mind you, a dance with a European woman, proves a fine, agile waltzer. He offers elephants to the American President, receives a letter of thanks from Abraham Lincoln, who mentions the battle of Antietam (September 1862) as causing 70,000 deaths, whereas these were closer to 27, 000.
Yun-Fat's Monkgut is infinitely nicer than the man depicted in the real Anna's journals. These are full of inventions as well as self aggrandizements. His flirtation with Anna --whom he addresses as "Ma'am" while the other notables say "Sir" to her--is the biggest of all fabulations and anachronisms. In reality, Mongkut (1804-1868) was 58 when Anna entered his service. In reality too, research has concluded that Anna never even met the King; that she was a teacher, not a governess; that, that, that ---ad infinitum....
There are, in many languages, sayings to the effect that people who come from far away can be major liars. Anna's diaries, written when Siam was still a "terra incognita" to most of the world, overflow with fabrications. It is not surprising that the understandably touchy Thailand of today has banned successively all the movie versions of Anna's "story," and have been particularly offended at the portrayals of King Mongkut. The current movie, coming in the age of the Internet, has caused a furore and a flood of messages from all sources. Thai ones, including protests by students; non-Thai, including exposes by researchers.
The only sensible way to consider the problem is to look at all the Anna-King movies as fantasy-fiction.
In version #3, over and above all else, the spectacle is the thing. It was a huge undertaking which also involved Oscar-worthy blending of photography, special effects and computer-generated images. From the palace to huge statues, from the grandest barges since "Cleopatra" to small, labor-intensive throwaway details, this is a paean to imagery, whether invented or not.. I'd love to see the movie's out-takes.
If the sights are painstakingly cultivated, the sounds lag behind, as they often do in films today. Inauspiciously, the opening has a muddle of conflicting noises, music and speech. The truly colossal list of end-credits rolls to a dumb, jarring, irrelevant and horrible song written by George Fenton and two other culprits. "How Can I Not Love You" is sung in an awful Junior High voice.