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Anna and the King

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Anna and the King

Starring: Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat
Director: Andy Tenant
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 147 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Mano Maniam, Ling Bai, Kee Thuan Chye, Teoh Kah Yong, Randall Duk Kim, Kenneth Tsang

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

A few years ago Princess Diana visited the Brooklyn Academy of Music to attend a concert in my home town. The audience were told to be seated at least one-half hour before the scheduled beginning and no commoners were admitted after 7:30 that evening. The assembly were also ordered to stand when the princess arrived and to face her for a moment of respect and awe. The whole affair struck me as silly. After all, didn't Americans give their lives in the War for Independence to throw off such nonsense? Anyone in that congregation at the Brooklyn Academy could well understand the frustrations of Anna Leonowens, whose true story is once again given dramatic dimension in yet another version. Having been the subject of a novel by Margaret Landon, the British schoolteacher's diaries of her trip to Siam in 1862 to tutor the 50-odd children of King Mongkut were made into a movie in 1946 starring the 48-year-old Irene Dunne as the titled teacher and Rex Harrison in the monarch's seat, then given a Broadway performance as "The King and I" which, in turn, was made into a sumptuous movie version in 1956 with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. There was even a recent animated version--which makes us think, "What's so special about this tale?"

The story itself is now old-hat. It's dated. The movies and staged musicals made with the yarn as its foundation were produced not for the plot but for the production values. Consider the possibilities of shooting rolls and rolls of film in the exotic East, particularly given the lavish beauty of the palaces and temples of Bangkok. And with current cinematic techniques plus the virtually unlimited budget that could be spent on costumes and on reconstructing the palace as it must have looked in 1862, "Anna and the King" would be a shoo-in for a stack of Oscars. Indeed the '46 film copped the Academy awards for Cinematography and Art/Set Decoration while the filmed "King and I" got statuettes for the same plus an additional one for Yul Brynner.

When you go to see the spanking new version of "Anna and the King"--which is bereft of all the beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein songs like "Getting to Know You," "I Whistle a Happy Tune," and "Shall We Dance"--think of it as a sure bet to sway the Academy once again for the extravagant cinematography and designs that have made even the proud elephants the best dressed animals in the world today. Filmed in several locations in Malaysia to replicate the appearance of Thailand over a century ago, the picture could do for the Malaysian tourist industry what Joseph Ruben's "Return to Paradise" took away from it the previous year. The country--or at least the varied sites in which this movie was filmed, in particular the grounds of the Clearwater Golf Resort outside the city of Perak--look gorgeous. Jodie Foster is nothing short of stunning. Chow Yun-Fat as the proud king who learns a thing or two from the lovely schoolmarm is a more human-looking figure than Yul Brynner or Rex Harrison, the highly popular performer acquitting himself just fine in a genre far removed from the Hong-Kong action category. The cinematography is striking from the get-go.

But that's as good as it gets. In other regards, director Andy Tennant ("Ever After: A Cinderella Story") uses little imagination to bring the story to life for a 1990s audience, dutifully filming the stately proceedings as a museum piece. He makes the same error that led to the demise of the D'oyle Carte Opera Company, which persisted in performing the works of Gilbert and Sullivan in precisely the style used from the launching of the Savoyard productions during the 19th century. Is there still an audience today for the usual assortment of cute kids (especially those of an Asian culture performing English-language songs) or Asian players spouting fortune-cookie dialogue ("one can't plant new fields overnight")? The entire Saran-wrapped production is packaged neatly for the holidays, and who knows? There may still be folks out there, the types who long for the traditional dancing girls at Radio City Music Hall doing their robotized kicks and bounces, lugging their kids who'd rather watch "Toy Story 2" or play video games or see 007. For the rest of us, "Anna and the King" is scenic overkill, a travelogue in place of a witty and absorbing movie, a believable revolution, and a genuine feeling that something is at stake.

Those familiar with "The King and I" will note a few changes in the straight story, which include an attempted coup and a monarch who does not die at the conclusion. Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) takes up an employment offer of Siam's King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat) to tutor his 58 kids in English. Though he continues to condone slavery at just the time that the Americans were about to shuck the peculiar institution, he wants to open his country to the world and realizes ahead of his time that English is the language that will expedite the plan. He is dismayed by Anna's contempt of protocol--her refusal to prostrate herself before him and her insistence that he fulfill the contract and house her in private quarters with her son, Louis--and not in the palace. The recently-widowed Anna is immediately liked by all the king's young 'uns, most importantly by the heir to the throne, Prince Chulalongkorn. She is particularly dismayed by the king's refusal to commute the death sentence against one of his concubines, Tuptim (Bai Ling), who had schemed to get together once again with her lover, but grows to realize that in other ways England is not a culture which is superior to that of Siam.

The one scene of political interest takes place in the palace to which a number of British bigwigs have been invited in an attempt to gain their support against an anticipated attack by France. A wealthy trader, Kincaid, embarrasses all at the large banquet by declaring to the king's face that England is a superior civilization and by forcing him to face up to the fact that he has invited the diplomats to Bangkok to curry favor for a future military campaign. There is also a tense action sequence that recalls the blowing up of the overpass in David Lean's stunning 1957 war film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which portrays Sri Lanka in a far more gruesome way than Tennant utilizes the magnificent panorama of Malaysia. But the picture, which has not a single vulgar word, is so eager to cater to a family crowd that when Anna's boy asks "What's a concubine?" and "Why does the king need so many wives"? he is told, in effect, that it's past his bedtime.

To Tennant's credit, he has the people portraying Siamese speaking Thai for the most part, employing clear English subtitles, and Chow does a creditable job of speaking the language fluently--as does Jodie Foster with the few words in that language that her character chooses to vocalize. Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is at times breathtaking and designer Luciana Arrighi has done her homework in giving the palace the mid-19th century look, while Jenny Beavan has costumed Foster appropriately in the well-worn dresses she would be expected to wear and the elephants in the togs that would dazzle even the owners of New York's Park Avenue poodle emporia. Unfortunately, what should have been the highlight of the movie--the intense battle of wits between the two immovable objects of Siamese royalty and English obstinacy--simply lacks the razor-sharpness that would have made this spectacular travelogue into a compelling story.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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