Anna And The King

Anna And The King


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The likelihood of Jodie Foster bursting into song is as ludicrous as Chow Yun-Fat changing his name to Yul Brynner. For all its pomp, this is a new look at an old romance.

When Anna arrived in the Far East as a young widow with her son, Britain ruled the waves and an awful lot of countries around the globe. Siam might have been on the moon as far as she knew. Burma was next door, protected by Queen Victoria and causing trouble. She had been hired by King Mongkut as a governess. What no-one told her was that he had 58 children, "with 10 more on the way".

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The king ruled as a benevolent autocrat. He expected to be treated like a god, didn't listen to advice and yet wanted his country to advance into the 20th century, rather than exist in splendid isolation, being exploited by The East India Company. Thus the need for education, at least for the first family.

The clash of intellect and custom is full of interest, as long as you put Rogers & Hammerstein out of your mind. Andy Tennant directs with an eye on the sumptuous look Bertolucci achieved with The Last Emporer. There is too much ceremony and not enough politics. When these blow up into armed rebellion and the cameras are dragged away from the palace, it seems half-hearted, as if someone mentioned guns'n'treachery in order to get things moving.

The film belongs to Jodie Foster. She is quite magnificent. Her performance is a victory of mind over material. Not only has she mastered the English accent, but honed it to a precision that differentiates between caricature and individuality. She avoids mannerisms and manages, by strength of character alone, to create a very real person. There is nothing soft about Anna. Still mourning the death of her husband, she expects no sympathy and when faced with the king's intransigence stands up for what she believes, while, at the same time, recognising there are areas where a woman cannot go.

Because of Foster, sentimentality is diluted. The children are used as hanky fodder every now and again, but as far as Anna is concerned, there is nothing so vulgar as a show of unsolicited emotion. And yet she is neither prim nor passionless. She has strong feelings and won't be treated as a servant. It is a question of human dignity. The king respects that, until she goes too far and forces him to question the sanctity of life at the moment of a public execution.

The king has a host of wives and a clutch of concubines, all of whom admire and honour him. He is also affectionate with his children and manages to remember most of their names. Yun-Fat conveys the presence of a man who has never doubted his role in life and is good at conveying the confidence of power, without assuming an air of arrogance. His performance has none of Brynner's show-stopping bravura and a great deal more understanding. It is a two-hander - three, if you count the scenery. Coming in at twice the length of a normal film, it should drag. As head of the yawn police, Foster won't allow this. You don't have to be told to sit up straight. The world according to Anna Leonowens is to be explored, relished and respected. Fun is not discussed.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Non-singing version of the story about how the King of Siam fell for a British school maam.
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Director: Andy Tennant

Writer: Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Andy Tennant, Rick Parks

Starring: Jodie Foster, Chow Yun Fat, Mano Maniam, Ling Bai, Kee Thuan Chye, Teoh Kah Yong, Randall Duk Kim, Kenneth Tsang, Deanna Yusoff

Year: 1999

Runtime: 151 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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