Anna and the King
There is no more electrifying presence in films today than that of Chow Yun-Fat. He combines the iconic authority of John Wayne with the sensuality and magnetism of the young Marlon Brando, and the result is a singularly volcanic power that is barely held in check by the borders of a movie screen. Known in America only for his work in "The Replacement Killers," Chow at 45 is already a veteran of more than 70 Hong Kong films, including the breathtaking trio of crime stories "Hard-Boiled," "Inside Story," and "A Better Tomorrow," all directed by John Woo with a kinetic mastery unmatched by any director working today.
Here in "Anna and the King," based on the memoirs of the Victorian Anna Leonowens, who came to Siam in the 1850s to tutor the sixty-eight royal children, Chow is King Mongkut. Revered as a living god in an isolated society, he has the foresight to plan for a future in which the outside world will play a much greater role in the lives of his people. He wants his children educated in English, and has brought the widow Anna (Jodie Foster) to do it. The story of the clash of cultures and mores, the hidden, unspoken need for adventure of Anna as a way of exorcising the memory of her husband, the simultaneous Victorian serenity that underlies her courage, all would make for a novel worthy of any in the nineteenth century.
The role of Anna is a comfortable fit for Foster; in recent years she has chosen vehicles for herself that move her farther and farther from conventional romantic love, and into the kind of roles that stress the creation of an independent persona, less dependent on others, a life that need not include pairing up at all. Here she is the strong-willed woman who can challenge the king and open him up to a wider vision. (A Peace Corps veteran of my acquaintance says that the historic genius of Thailand lies in its ability to accommodate itself to stronger forces without surrendering its independence. This story is set in a defining moment for the testing of that genius.) Foster is herself an experienced and brilliant actor, versatile and resourceful, and playing opposite Chow she might have had the chance to give Anna the depth and humanity that were lacking in both Deborah Kerr's role in the 1956 musical "The King and I" and Irene Dunne's in the 1946 "Anna and the King of Siam."
But she's been let down by a bland and conventional script by the team of Peter Krikes and Steve Meerson, whose best-known work previously is "Star Trek IV." They have given us two hours and twenty minutes of pageantry and stereotypical confrontations, even including a climactic moment in which Anna and the children save the king, indeed Siam itself, from a traitorous general and his army. It did not happen that way, and the film, by running to melodrama, is seriously weakened.
The direction, by Andy Tennant, is also weak. Given sumptuous locations and sets -- the film was shot in Malaysia and enhanced by computer-generated backdrops -- he has settled for the obvious instead of the meaningful. And worse, he seems not to have a sense of where to place his camera and how to move it. Scenes are shot from the least interesting angles, and cut away from at the wrong moments. Often Chow and Foster, in conversation with each other, seem to be in two different places. Though Anna has brought her own 10-year-old son, Tennant barely gives us any relationship between them. He hurries us instead to the next confrontation with the king.
Having said all that, it is still necessary to point out that by the power of the story itself and its two stars, this is a very good film. It is never boring, never dull. It has the virtue of being stately, true to its Victorian setting in its undemonstrative approach to the clash of cultures; and the picture of life within the palace compound is absolutely fascinating. There is even one magical moment, when the king's eldest son, a bright and thoughtful boy, is reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin." He looks around at the slaves who hold umbrellas over his head, and makes the proper, unspoken connection.
Ultimately there are so many worthwhile moments in this film that it seems almost criminal to carp, but it is a film about power that sadly lacks a power of its own.