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IN SHORT: Visually spectacular. Emotionally weak.
You may know parts of the story from earlier versions, the 1946 drama Anna and the King of Siam, or the mega-hit 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (and we'll not bother with last year's awful animated flick of the same name). Though, since it's being used in a currently running teevee commercial, it was real hard keeping that Rodgers & Hammerstein theme out of mind. But this flick has nothing to do with that musical. Don't walk in expecting that.
Ah, the nineteenth century sure was a whack time. Director Andy Tennant, who wowed us all with his remake of the Cinderella story, Ever After, has blasted us with both barrels this time. On screen, the creation of the court and culture of Siam is a splendid thing to behold. The buildings, the costumes, the incredibly liberal use of gold almost everywhere, the pageantry of court and the elephants . . . it's almost more than the eye can take in at a glance. Luckily, the story moves so damned slowly that you can take more than a leisurely glance.
When Mrs. Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) arrives in Bangkok in 1862, she is to tutor to the eldest child of King Mongkut of Siam (Chow Yun-Fat). Widowed 23 months, she brings her son Louis (Tom Felton) who will be educated with, as it turns out, all fifty-eight of the King's kidlets. That's not as many heirs as the Emperor of China but, as the King tells the teacher, "I spent half my life in a monastery." Anna has her work cut out for her. Not only has she been raised in English Imperial style, believing most cultures in the Queen's Empire to be inferior, she has a problem with a land that worships its King as a God. While the King is well dressed and well spoken, he is a bit overbearing and Imperial. And, gosh darn if there just isn't something attractive about that foreign look . . .
While stories of unrequited love and young love lost to Imperius Rex remain, this version features some heavy duty political intrigue. With the French and their "Indo-China" territories of Cambodia and Vietnam to one side and the English interests in Burma to the other, whither goest Siam? Burmese death squads are killing the merchant class. The ruling dynasty has been ousted at least once in the previous century. Are there forces at work that could bring down good King who, in his own time, forsees a modernization of Siam to bring it in line with the rest of the "civilized" world? (that means no slavery and education for all) And what of that pushy broad of a teacher he hired? She won't bow down to the King. She teaches his son about things not on the curriculum! She interferes in his marital life, even teaching one of his concubines how to communicate secretly with the boyfriend she had to leave behind. She is the one person allowed to argue nose to nose with The King. And, gosh darn if there just isn't something attractive about that foreign look . . .
Simply, Anna is tough and The King is a lot more progressive than he lets on. At it's core, a growing respect between the King and the Commoner becomes something more unrequited when the pair dance a waltz at a birthday celebration. Cranky's history lessons kicked in here; in its day the waltz was considered a very sexy dance -- not to mention the cross cultural/racial divide being bridged by the mere touching of hands. Despite what you see on screen, and it looks marvelous, Cranky got no great feeling that the King and Anna really do have an attraction to each other.
That's my problem. You need to believe that attraction when Anna's devotion to her employer leads to a preposterous and visually explosive ending. I choose the word "preposterous" carefully. What you see, if it had come full blown from the fictional ravings of a writer, would have led to an instant dismissal of the film as something ridiculous. It is very clever, but it is so out of place that, since this is developed from notes about real events, it may very well have happened.
Jodie Foster delivers a performance that is not a shade less than what we expect. Chow Yun-Fat is fine in a role that allows him the luxury of not falling back on heavy weaponry to make a point -- he is one of the biggest Hong Kong film stars, if you didn't know. But it's hard to show a growing attraction when such a crossover is almost an impossibility. When it is time for end credits, are we supposed to feel the mournful loss when the King and his never-gonna-be-a-concubine dance their last dance before she gets on the boat back to England? You bet. Did we? Nope.
Well, I didn't. But I'm a guy.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Anna and the King, he would have paid...
Standard dateflick level, 'cuz this might work better for my femme friends than for me. Pageantry and exquisite production values like these deserve to be seen on a big screen.
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