by Cathleen Myers
This is a gorgeous costume picture. Costume designer Jenny Beavan spent a year in costume and textile museums and libraries, doing the research for her exquisite Victorian and Thai costumes for Anna and the King. The production crew assembled by producer Lawrence Bender spent over a year constructing the amazing replica of the King of Siam’s principal palace and the spectacular interior sets.
Would that director Andy Tennant and the three other writers who worked on the screenplay had devoted equal time and effort to researching the story of the remarkable King Mongkut of Siam (Chow Yun Fat) and the strong-willed Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster), English tutor to the Royal children. They have read Mrs. Leonowens’ three books of memoirs (and she does get an onscreen credit!) but the rest of their research is sloppy. The political conspiracy subplot and ridiculous ‘action film’ climax are not only unhistorical but preposterous. The film has been waggishly dubbed, "Anna and the Action Hero."
But the film’s great achievement is, indeed, Chow Yun Fat’s performance as King Mongkut, "Do you realize," observed a Thai colleague, "that this is the first major American film to star an Asian actor as a romantic lead?" And, indeed, she may be correct. Chow’s intelligent characterization is a far cry from the half-savage libertine portrayed by Yul Brynner in The King and I. Chow is just as charismatic yet far, far closer to the real personality of Thailand’s justly admired first modern sovereign - an intellectual, shrewd but compassionate statesman and Renaissance man who engineers Siam’s future as a modern country. Thai historians have criticized The King and I for over-romanticizing the King’s friendship for Anna and for suggesting that his political achievements were almost entirely her doing. Anna and the King gives a far more balanced portrait of the relationship. While Chow’s King does fall in love with the liberated Englishwoman, he is never "guided" by her in political matters and is already a complete master of international politics. Jodie Foster’s Anna is intelligent and sensitive but politically naive and, like many Colonials, tragically blind in some ways. While Ms. Foster’s British accent is not impeccable, neither, probably, was Anna’s since she had lived and traveled in India and the Orient for most of her life. And if the romance is probably fictional, well....the exact relationship between Anna and the King remains one of history’s mysteries. There is, alas, no grand polka, but the waltz scenes are so erotically charged that we can almost forgive the choreographer for making them dance a modern rather than a mid-Victorian waltz.
The film’s producers also made the admirable decision to cast only Asian actors in Asian roles. This political correctness pays off in some really stellar ensemble playing by the supporting cast led by Syed Alwa’s wryly amusing and worldy wise Prime Minister (The Kralahome). The screenplay includes one of the most moving episodes in the King’s life - the death of his adored daughter, the Crown Princess Fa-Ying (in a lovely performance by Eurasian child actress Melissa Campbell). More controversial is the decision to include another subplot - the much-disputed story of the King’s concubine Tuptim (played with great dramatic feeling by stunning Chinese actress Bai Ling). Tennant, to his credit, at least tries to make us understand the tragic story in context and to understand the King’s motivation but it’s fair to point out that although Mrs. Leonowens tells the story in her second book of memoirs, Thai historians dispute many of the facts and have called its conclusion "extremely improbable."
The Thai courtiers, even the Royal children, behave in public with the courtesy and grace characteristic of the Royal Court of Siam. The (mostly fictional) British characters, however, are caricatures of rude imperialists. Tennant has a very strange idea of how Victorian ladies and gentlemen behaved (and even Anna often forgets not to turn her back on the King). Curiously, the film perpetuates the fiction that Anna Leonowens was the widow of a British officer, though at least Ms. Beavan’s costumes reflect Anna’s very limited income. This Anna owns only one simple evening gown and her tasteful, sensible frocks are mostly Indian muslins and cottons - not the sweeping silks and satins Deborah Kerr modeled in The King and I.
It is possible to enjoy Anna and the King as one would enjoy a romance novel, and Chow Yun Fat’s magnificently realized King Mongkut elevates the script above its mediocrity. But this is certainly not the "true story" nor should the film’s publicists advertise it as such.
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