Anna and the King
starring: Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat
June 20, 2000
I hate the musical "Anna and the King." I despise it. It is embarrassing in its ignorant, racist and Christiano-centric portrayal of 19th century Siamese culture. From its portrayal of King Mongkut as a childish oaf who dies of a broken heart at the loss of his Englishwoman love to its astonishingly uninformed representation of Bhuddism to its pathetically unmemorable music (some of Rogers and Hammerstein's worst, in my opinion), the play is at best weak and at worst horribly insulting to an entire culture and its history. It is easy to see why Yul Brynner was banned from Bangkok (though, as an actor, Yul should have not been punished, though Rogers and Hammerstein should have been condemned). And, unfortunately, Margaret Landon's historical novel "Anna and the King," based upon the (some suspect fake) diaries of Anna Leonowens, is chiefly remembered because of this abysmal musical.
Fortunately, however, Jodie Foster decided to make a movie, not of the musical, but of the book.
Unlike the musical, which is primarily about forbidden love and how it is worth dying for (the desire of the King to bring his country to prominence in the world is only a secondary plot device), the film is about a truly noble, admirable king who so loves his country that he is willing to sacrifice himself to see it thrive on its own and remain strong and independent in a part of the world rapidly changing and being colonized by the supposedly "modern" west, primarily England and France.
Chow Yun-Fat plays the King with amazing intelligence, sensitivity and a brand of sincerity and quiet charm that is almost unseen , especially by an actor who is not playing in his native tongue. In every scene he displays the best of what this character stands for -- his honesty, intelligence and integrity, along with the trials of a king who sees the wrong in being held slave to tradition but knows that his people cannot change overnight.
Jodi Foster is Anna, an Englishwoman and a teacher whose husband was killed in service to England while in India. She is brought to Bangkok as a tutor to the King's children and ends up as a vital council and friend to the King. While in the musical, Anna is all bitch on top with gooey-soft girly romance underneath, Foster's Anna is intelligent and complex -- a grieving widow who finds strength in day to day tasks and who is capable of learning even from those she is teaching. She is also passionate and compassionate, not just with the children she teaches, but with everyone around her.
The cast is rounded out by uniformly strong actors. Even the children (another reason I hate the musical) are strong -- some of them (Tom Felton as Anna's son, Louis and Keith Chin as the King's heir apparent and sometime narrator of the story) unusually so.
Bu the real star here, in my estimation, is the script. Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes do a wonderful job weaving a complex story about love, honor, duty, treason and grief into an easily watchable, thoroughly enjoyable two hour film. The film spends just exactly the right amount of time on every character and subplot -- I never found myself bored with a scene or character or subplot.
Production is superb as well -- it has to be for a piece like this that depends so heavily not only on period, but place as well. Costumes and sets were meticulously crafted, and custom and style executed (so far as my untrained sensibilities could see) faithfully and without the subtle (mostly unintended) mockery that so often accompanies the play. And, of course, the cinematography is breathtaking -- it makes me regret not seeing this film in the theater.
If the movie has a flaw, however, it is in its odd inability to convey the passing of time. Clearly the events in the film must take place over several months (if not years), but the audience is never let in on that elusive timeframe. It is an easy fault to forgive, however, in a movie this well made.
If you enjoy excellent acting, writing and production, go rent Anna and the King. It is a moving look at the humanness of Kings, and how the powers of love, duty and honor shape the world.