Anna and the King
Anna and the King

USA, 1999.  Rated PG-13.  140 minutes.

Cast: Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat, Bai Ling, Tom Felton, Syed Alwi, Keith Chin, Randall Duk Kim, Lim Kay-Siu, Melissa Campbell, Deanna Yusoff
Writers: Steve Meerson & Peter Krikes, based on the diaries by Anna Leonowens
Music: George Fenton
Cinematographer: Caleb Deschanel
Producers: Lawrence Bender & Ed Elbert
Director: Andy Tennant


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

I n a year characterized by inventive, groundbreaking movies like American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Blair Witch Project, and Fight Club, Anna and the King stands out. It stands out as a big traditional Hollywood epic. Giant sets, huge cast, expensive costumes, omnipresent score, and plenty of contrived made-for-the-movies moments... Anna and the King has it all. This is the sort of film that would have contended for a Best Picture Oscar back in the mid-Eighties and handily won in the early Sixties. But this is the late Nineties, and traditional Hollywood epics are pretty unfashionable now. It would seem an ill-considered time, therefore, to produce the fourth screen adaptation of the true-ish story of Anna Leonowens, who in the 1860s spent five years teaching English in the court of Siam. Everything about this now-classic fairy-tale romance clashes with the subversive, counter-cultural aesthetic currently dominating at the box office. the royal barges

The most famous of the prior adaptations (which included 1946's Anna and the King of Siam and this year's animated feature The King and I) was, of course, the intolerably racist 1956 film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1951 musical, The King and I. It made Yul Brenner a star and earned him one of the most inexplicable Best Actor Oscars® ever awarded for his broad, ham-handed portrayal of King Mongkut. Although censorship is always regrettable, one can hardly blame the Thais for banning The King and I from their homeland. Its historical accuracy is gravely in doubt. It's not just that The King and I would have you believe that mid-19th Century Siamese were given to breaking out into middlebrow American song-and-dance numbers at the drop of a hat. It's that it depicts Mongkut--by all accounts an intelligent and progressive ruler for his time--as a buffoon. And it takes Anna Leonowens' memoirs at their word, though many historians agree that she lied extensively about her background and exaggerated her own position and importance in King Mongkut's court. (See, Louis and the King of Siam, by Dr. W.S. Bristowe; Anna Leonowens: A Life Beyond 'The King and I,' by Leslie Smith Dow, and the article by William Warren in Traveller's Tales-Thailand.)

Although Anna and the King, too, is of questionable historical merit, it is a far more plausible and culturally sensitive telling of the story of Anna and Mongkut. We first meet Anna (Jodie Foster) in 1862 as she arrives in Bangkok with her son Louis. She's newly widowed and determined to make the best of her new life as a teacher of English to Mongkut's eldest son and heir to the throne, Chulalongkorn. Full of confidence, she tells Louis that the ways of England are the ways of the world. She is ill-prepared, however, for the reality of Mongkut's court. She is assigned quarters in the palace upon her arrival (despite Mongkut's promise to give her a house of her own) and subsequently ignored. But Anna's quintessential Englishness refuses to allow her to accept the Siamese "everything in its own time" way of doing things. After three weeks of neglect, she barges into the throne room and forces an audience with Mongkut.

In Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat), Anna's stubbornness and determination meet their match. Unlike his courtiers, Mongkut takes in stride Anna's refusal to abase herself and her forwardness--particularly unseemly in a woman. He greets Anna with phlegmatic composure, which has the effect of taking the wind out of Anna's sails more effectively than any display of anger or dissatisfaction might have. Brushing aside her request for quarters outside of the palace, he introduces Anna to his multitude of wives, concubines, and children, and he informs Anna that Chulalongkorn will not be her only pupil. Anna will be required to teach all the royal offspring.

These first few scenes between Anna and Mongkut are important because they help to establish the difference between influence and control. In previous film adaptations, Anna proves able to manipulate Mongkut; here, the dynamic is altered. Later in the story, when Anna and the King shows Mongkut taking Anna's advice and treating her as an equal, as we know he eventually will, we see that it is because he is choosing to do so, not because of Anna's ability to steamroll him. Anna and the King is not a story about a plucky Englishwoman who civilizes a headstrong king. There is never any doubt about who is in charge. Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat

Instead, the struggle to be in charge takes place between Anna and Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin). He refuses to be told what to do by a woman--and a foreign woman, to boot. He defies Anna and starts a fistfight with Louis. But Anna's more strong-willed than Chulalongkorn bargains for, and, with a judiciously timed show of support for Anna by Mongkut, the battle is won.

The film's attention then shifts to slavery, an issue which The King and I chose as its central focus. Anna discovers that some of the servants in the palace are being treated abominably, and, as Anna gets to know the King's family, it becomes clear to her that the wives are little more than slaves themselves. Although the film's views on slavery, expressed through an angry Anna, are not subtly presented, Anna and the King is not quite as heavy-handed as The King and I. We are thankfully spared the latter film's painful ten-minute-plus musical rendition of Uncle Tom's Cabin by the king's children. Further, Anna and the King is more realistic about cultural and social limitations on change, no matter how forward thinking a monarch might be. On the other hand, after it is so forcefully introduced by the screenwriters, the issue of slavery is ultimately and unsatisfactorily glossed over and forgotten.

The political subplot involving Siam's efforts to avoid becoming a European colony is far more prominent than in The King and I and dominates the last quarter of the film. We learn that Mongkut desires the royal family to learn English, not because he views Siam as a backward nation that must be more "modern" (i.e., more European), but because he knows that Britain is the world's preeminent colonial power. Mongkut also knows that preserving Siam's independence from Britain (or France) will not be easy--especially because there have been reports of border raids by Burmese soldiers, and Burma is a British protectorate. Mongkut suspects the Burmese of trying to provoke a war in order to prompt British intervention against Siam, so being perceived as pro-English is politic. All of this makes perfect sense, but at a certain point the political intrigue stops being realistic. The last part of the film, in which the royal court flees Bangkok for reasons that make little sense (the journey turns out to be predictably foolhardy), is quite obviously a Hollywood screenwriter's creation. It's a shame that the movie's quest for realism is abandoned in favor of incorporating more action and a good-old-fashioned climactic scene.
The Big Picture
ratings explained

The movie works in spite of its obvious Hollywoodisms, thanks to its gorgeous production and its fine stars--one of the two stars in particular. I do not mean Jodie Foster. She is an outstanding actress, but she has one fatal limitation, and that is her lack of chemistry with male co-stars, as anyone who has seen Sommersby is well aware. One could argue that she had chemistry with Mel Gibson in Maverick, primarily due to her willingness to play along with Gibson's brand of humor. She certainly had chemistry with Anthony Hopkins, but The Silence of the Lambs was not precisely a romance. Foster just doesn't generate much warmth on screen.

Fortunately, Foster's inability to portray romantic love does not undo the movie, for two reasons. First, Foster handles the rest of the emotional range superbly, which serves her well because the romance between Anna and Mongkut is largely of the frustrated, unrequited variety. She is thus asked to display anger, pain, vulnerability, and confusion instead of passion, and that she can do. Second, Chow Yun-Fat has enough chemistry and warmth for the both of them.

A former icon of Hong Kong cinema (The Killer, Hard Boiled, Bullet in the Head), Chow Yun-Fat is a star--in the classic sense of the word. American audiences may not be aware of Yun-Fat's box office power, but his star quality is immediately apparent. He fills the screen with his magnetism and charisma. When he is onscreen, he commands it--just as a king should. You might have trouble believing that Foster is in love based on her own performance, but Yun-Fat's charisma makes it believable. And even though he has spent most of his career making action movies, Yun-Fat is surprisingly at ease in a period piece. While he may not contend for a Best Actor Oscar, he proves that he has dramatic skills to back up his star quality. Longtime Yun-Fat fans will also be pleased to find that director Andy Tennant (Ever After, another star-crossed romance between opposites) even allows him to indulge in a classic Yun-Fat moment: he coolly lights a cigar as he stares danger in the face.

Anna and the King is a nice story, but even this more historically accurate version is probably mostly fiction. The idea of a relationship, requited or no, between Anna and Mongkut is improbable at best. For one thing, the real Mongkut was about 58 years old when the twenty-eight-old Anna (thirty-one by some accounts) arrived in Bangkok. For another, most historians dispute the importance of her role in King Mongkut's court. They also allege that the entire episode involving Mongkut's treatment of his youngest wife, Tuptim (Bai Ling), was completely invented by Anna Leonowens for the purpose of adding color to her adventures. Still, just because Anna and the King is not accurate doesn't mean it's not entertaining. Visually, the film is spectacular, and except for the last part, the story holds together reasonably well. If you are starved for a classic Hollywood epic, you should make a point of seeing Anna and the King.

Review © December 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved.

  Comment on this review  

  Read selected user comments
  Official site
  IMDB page
  MRQE page
  Rotten Tomatoes page