Considering director Andy Tennant’s previous efforts include things like “Ever After,” “Fools Rush in” and the made-for-TV “Amy Fisher Story,” “Anna and the King” is a fantastic achievement.
Not giving any extra credit for rising above his most recent work, however, “Anna” fails to be the grand, sweeping drama it wants to be.
Based rather loosely on the true story of Anna Leonowitz, an Englishwoman who went to Siam in 1862 to be a schoolteacher to the king’s numerous children, “Anna and the King” is a character drama. We see how Anna (Jodie Foster) helps change Siam for the better, and how Siam — particular its king (Chow Yun-Fat) changes Anna for the better.
The story is more familiar (and more romanticized) in the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I.” Fans of that show, though, will find many differences in the new version. The romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha is made almost non-existent, and Anna’s attempt to Anglicize the king’s family so as to impress visiting English nobles is also swept away. (Just as well on that one, since it always smacked of ethnocentrism: “Ignore your own culture and act British if you want the British people to like you.”)
There’s also a completely unnecessary subplot involving a traitor (Randall Duk Kim) who stages a coup attempt, culminating in an Indiana Jones-style jungle battle and bridge explosion.
That subplot does nothing to advance the theme of personal change and acceptance of other cultures. It seems to be there solely to make the film too long. One wonders if Tennant kept it in out of fear that a straight-forward drama, with so little “action,” wouldn’t attract audiences.
He needn’t have worried. Foster, with her expressive face and flawless accent, performs admirably as Anna, making her simultaneously both headstrong and directionless (after the recent death of her husband). And Yun-Fat makes a fine king, a truly believable monarch. He commands respect and perhaps a little fear — but he obviously loves his family, too, making him an accessible character. In fact, Yun-Fat out-acts Foster for most of the movie, and makes one forget Yul Brynner ever even played the role.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (who also did the equally striking “Twin Peaks” TV series) gives us a stunning view of 19th-century Siam. There are many wide shots of gorgeous scenery and palaces, showing us plenty of beauty to look at to accompany the engaging story.
The film’s only major weakness is the aforementioned subplot, which sticks out like a sore thumb. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the little show that Anna has the king’s children put on for him. In it, they sing “Daisy Bell” (aka “A Bicycle Built for Two”), which wasn’t written for another 30 years. Tsk, tsk.
B- (; )