Director Andy Tennant scores with another radiant reinterpretation of a classic romance
Because "Anna and the King" stands on its own remarkably well, it may be unfair to begin this review with a comparison to "The King and I," the most famous film adapted from the same source material. But what I found most striking about the elegant, intelligent remake is how acutely aware it made me of the insulting Euro-centricity of its predecessors.
In the same story told in 1946 ("Anna and the King of Siam"), 1956 (from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical) and 1999 (that dreadful cartoon version), widowed English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens has always been portrayed as a much wiser, civilized woman who teaches the elaborate but backwards Asian monarch to think like a European, to waltz like a European and shapes his diplomatic policy by whispering in his ear.
The prudent but powerful screenplay for this non-musical, epic remake -- directed by Andy Tennant, who so successfully reinvented Cinderella in "Ever After" -- puts this Anna (played by Jodie Foster) and this King (Chow Yun-Fat) on very equal footing, making their relationship far more combative and compelling.
The second most striking thing about "Anna and the King" is that it's absolutely gorgeous. From the vast palace grounds created especially for the film to the beautiful costumes (by Merchant-Ivory favorite Jenny Beavan) to the lush mountains of Malaysia that stand in for Siam of the 1860s, every frame of the movie is alive with visual vibrancy.
The third most striking thing about "Anna and the King" is the intricate, intimate performances of its stars, which comes as no surprise at all, as they're both irrefutably the best choices in the film biz for the title roles.
Looking period-perfect in her corsets and bustles, Foster projects palpable pensiveness and percolating pre-feminist determination under Anna's contrived and prim air of self-confidence.
And after years of being recognized in America only as the double-barreled star of outrageous Hong Kong shoot-'em-ups, Chow Yun-Fat finally gets a chance to prove the versatility he's famous for in the rest of the world, giving a meditative, noble, romantic and dashing performance, so original and so devoid of caricature that even "King and I" aficionados will forget all about Yul Brynner for the length of the film.
At its core, the story is largely the same as it has always been: Brought to Siam to instruct scores of royal children and wives in Western ways by a forward-looking king, the strong-headed and resolutely Victorian widow Anna Leonowens becomes the sovereign's friend and confidant while butting heads with him over everything from his foreign policy to the terms of her contract.
But "Anna and the King" is truer to the real Leonowens' memoirs than the classic musical ever could be. It's more pragmatic (a single dinner party does not resolve Siam's diplomatic problems) and considerably less romanticized (the king does not chicken out under Anna's scornful gaze when it comes to the horrible punishment his runaway concubine).
It examines both the imperial attitudes of England -- which looms over Siam's borders from its occupied neighbors nations -- and the sometimes barbaric practices of Siam's monarchy.
Of course, Anna and King Mongkut still dance -- although it's not the centerpiece of the movie. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is still employed as an instrument to indict slavery -- although it's read by the crown prince instead of a concubine, adding weight to its dramatic use.
But the discourse between the leads is ever so much more clever, strategic and engaging. Chow's king visibly enjoys having someone to spar with -- he finds Anna a stimulating intellectual and they share insights into each others' psyches.
Director Tennant makes wise choices and changes throughout to modernize the narrative, replacing the musical's G-rated sensibilities with more sophisticated touches of humor, irony and tenderness. He makes room for strong, relevant moments for supporting characters and employs some powerfully effective symbolism.
He also missteps now and again. Several scenes with the children come off extremely staged. The use of a subplot involving a border squabble with Burmese guerrillas seems completely unhinged as it randomly comes and goes throughout the picture, when it should hang over the story like a storm cloud. And that same subplot plays a role in the confusing, far-fetched but exciting finale.
But all Tennant's mistakes (with the possible exception of the indulgent run-time of 140 minutes) are made in the name of getting his movie out from under Rodgers and Hammerstein's long shadow, and he certainly succeeds at that.
I worry that people might not see this movie except to measure it against "The King and I," and I suppose I haven't helped with this compare-and-contrast review.
But if you've read this far, I'm guessing you're going to go anyway, so once you've seen it, give the picture a leg up and spread the word: "Anna and the King" is a wonderful movie.