ReelView's advance review of Anna & The King:

(2.5 stars out of 4 stars)

Anna and the King
A Film Review by James Berardinelli

United States, 1999
U.S. Release Date: 12/17/99 (wide)
Running Length: 2:25
MPAA Classification: PG-13 (Violence)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Cast: Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat, Bai Ling, Tom Felton, Keith Chin, Syed Alwi
Director: Andy Tennant
Producers: Lawrence Bender, Ed Elbert
Screenplay: Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Music: George Fenton
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox

This movie represents the fourth time that filmmakers have returned to the story of Anna Leonowens, a widowed British school teacher who traveled to Siam in 1862 to tutor King Mongkut's children in English. The first version, Anna and the King of Siam, was released in 1946 (only two years after Margaret Landon's novel popularized the tale) and starred Rex Harrison and the King and Irene Dunne as Anna. The best-known incarnation, 1956's The King and I (the movie adaptation of the Rogers & Hammerstein Broadway musical), featured Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Earlier this year, The King and I was reworked into a horrible animated effort. Now comes this interpretation, which re-invents the story as an epic romance.

Those craving historical accuracy will not find it in Anna and the King. I have often cautioned about the dangers of expecting a narrative film to remain true to the facts, and this is no exception. Actually, even if Anna and the King was slavishly faithful to Anna Leonowens' diaries, its veracity would still be in doubt. Several scholars have called the source material into question, indicating that the journals may contain numerous exaggerations or fabrications. So, aside from the indisputability of certain background information and broad historical facts, seeing the material presented in Anna and the King as a "true story" stretches the bounds of that term.

Former Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat, who has successfully transplanted his career to the United States, plays the stern and imperious King Mongkut, whose words and whims become the law of Siam. Chow is an inspired choice for the role - not only does he have an imposing screen presence, but he brings the perfect mix of enlightenment, compassion, and aloofness to the part. Opposite Chow is two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster, whose Anna is a little softer and more human than her predecessors' interpretations. Early in the film, it's clear that Anna is nervous and frightened by her new circumstances and by the unexpectedly cool reception she receives in the Siamese court. Like Chow, Foster radiates charisma, and the two work well together. The kind of on-screen bond they form is important in a story like this, where the romance constantly simmers just beneath the surface, but remains unconsummated.

The film begins with Anna and her son, Louis (Tom Felton) arriving in Siam by boat. She has accepted a commission from the king to instruct his eldest son, Prince Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin), in Western customs, because "the way of England is the way of the world." When she arrives, however, she learns that Mongkut has not fulfilled all of his promises (she was supposed to be given a house; instead, she is expected to live in the palace) and the king now wants her to instruct all of his children, as well as his newest concubine, Tuptim (Bai Ling). Thus begins a clash of wills and of West versus East, with Anna settling not just to be the equal of a man in this patriarchal culture, but the equal of a king.

Although Anna and the King runs for too long, it is predominantly engaging and well paced for the first two hours. Most of the material explored during that portion of the film pertains to the relationship between Mongkut and Anna and the way she gradually adapts to living in Siam. We see how her influence changes those around her, and how her new companions and lifestyle gradually re-shape her personality, enabling her to come to grips with her husband's death. The love story is developed gradually, without sensationalism, and in a manner that the viewer can believe for a staid and proper English woman and a monarch with 70 wives and concubines.

Unfortunately, it all starts to unravel during the final half-hour, when a silly, treasonous plot against the throne forces Mongkut to take his family on the run from a group of rebel soldiers. The resolution, and all that leads up to it, is patently ridiculous, and the inclusion of these adventure scenes (complete with some impressive pyrotechnic displays) seriously hurts the film's credibility and consistency. All of the earlier political background, which at the time seems to broaden the movie's sense of time and place, turns out to be a red herring that sets the groundwork for the forced and unnecessary climax.

Fans of The King and I will find much that is familiar, but perhaps even more that is different. In many ways, this is a stronger motion picture. It is not as nave and the characters are better developed. Missing in action are the song & dance numbers, the somewhat fatuous tone, the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" play, the references to Moses, Yul Brynner's bald pate, etc., etc., etc. The sets and cinematography are strengths of both, yet they are more impressive here than in the 1956 version. Most of the picture was filmed on location in Malaysia with computer-generated images used seamlessly to enhance the setting. From visual standpoint, Anna and the King never fails to impress. In fact, had it not been for the unfortunate final act, I would have been inclined to call Anna and the King the better film. Sadly, like too many movies, this one cannot bear to end quietly and gracefully. Director Andy Tennant (who scored a big hit with his previous effort, the Drew Barrymore-as-Cinderella-story, Ever After) tries too hard to put a spark into the late proceedings, and ends up creating a film that becomes too long as it veers into an unwanted direction. Anna and the King is not a waste or a lost cause, but it works best for those who embrace the first three-quarters, then ignore the rest. Anyone who expects the movie's last part to be its best will be disappointed.

1999 James Berardinelli