Anna and the King

(Andy Tennant, USA, 1999)


It is in many respects a brave project to adapt the diaries of Anna Leonowens – which are, most famously, the basis for The King and I (1956) – for a late ’90s audience.

Set in the 1860s, and tracing the friendship between schoolteacher Anna (Jodie Foster) and Mongkut, King of Siam (Chow Yun-Fat), the primary appeal of this material is its multi-layered nostalgia: for a lost paradise, for old movies, and for previous, essentially conservative ways of making sense of a complex, changing world.

Yet Anna and the King, though easy on the eye, does not take a safe route. There are no songs here (only a little, modest dancing), and not too much papering-over of the difficult issues. Although the film is essentially a very touching story of platonic romance, it does not entirely ignore the intricacies of historical context.

Many viewers are likely to be apprehensive about how this film treats the culture clash of East and West – a topic that Hollywood movies rarely treat with any fairness or humility (as cases like Red Corner [1997] make clear).

For the most part, writers Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes are careful to contrive a pleasing balance of powers. Both Anna and Mongkut are proud and noble; both make errors; both apologise. Placing the drama into a wider political context, the film is quick to disparage the haughty imperialism of the British.

There is only one issue – and it is really the key issue – on which the movie shows a prejudiced hand: the definition of love. Faced with the stark difference between Anna’s code of lifelong, monogamous commitment and Mongkut’s vast tribe of concubines and children, the film can only adduce that the Western ethos of love is the universal way while the Eastern style is an unnatural aberration.

Even this message, however, is cleverly reflected and qualified by a strong subplot concerning Tuptim (Bai Ling), for a short time one of the King’s many wives. She follows the path of true love, but with a twist: choosing to follow her man into the ascetic, spiritual ways of Buddhism.

Director Andy Tennant, who won many admirers with Ever After (1998), enlivens this material with his measured, fluid, intelligent style. He can turn on the spectacle and the epic sweep like any professional – the film is a triumph of costume (Jenny Beavan) and production design (Luciana Arrighi) – but he also respects the all-important moments of stillness and silence. Tennant is already surpassing the grossly overrated legacy of David Lean.

If the saying ‘every film is a documentary about its actors’ is true that, then Anna and the King is an intriguing study of two smart, soulful stars in action. Foster is not a million miles away from Deborah Kerr’s depiction of the Victorian-era heroine, but with a contemporary touch: she is all trembling, repressed emotion. Comedy is not her forte, but unspoken, deadly serious yearning is – and she gets to do plenty of that here.

Chow Yun-Fat‘s smile is one of the truly gorgeous things in our world. The part of Mongkut, as far from the actor’s classic hard-boiled, crime genre roles as it can possibly be, is a marvellous conduit for his immense charm, warmth and dignity. In fact, the deepest love expressed in this movie may be when Mongkut raises his little daughter in the air at bedtime, declaring: "I will be in your dreams, as you will be in mine".

MORE Tennant: Fools Rush In, It Takes Two, Sweet Home Alabama

MORE Foster: Flightplan, Little Man Tate, Nell, Panic Room, Sommersby

© Adrian Martin December 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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