Anna and the King
Directed by Andy Tennant
Review by Matt Heffernan
When I watch old movies such as Gone With the Wind and The Ten Commandments, I often marvel at how big studio productions used to be, when independent filmmaking meant B-grade and stag films. The Hollywood Spectacular is no longer possible due to the fall of the studio system and the inflated production costs. Not only are actors and directors commanding top dollar, but every other job goes to high-paid union members. Add in digital effects and mass marketing, and making a film like Spartacus today would cost twice as much as Titanic or The Phantom Menace. That's why it's sometimes refreshing to see an old school movie like Anna and the King get made in today's market.
Jodie Foster stars as the legendary English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, who moved to Siam in 1862 to give the crown prince a Western education. When she meets King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat), he changes the conditions of her employment: she will have to live in the palace with her son, Louis (Tom Felton), and her class will include all of the King's children (he has 58 from his many wives and courtesans).
Anna quickly finds that there are big differences between the English and Siamese cultures. She is a strong-willed woman, which is not the best thing to be in a society where men (especially the King) have total authority. Of course, her relationship with the King becomes closer, they each learn a little something about respect, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Director Andy Tennant, after making the disposable comedies It Takes Two and Fools Rush In, went for a "serious" take on Cinderella with Ever After. Now he fancies himself a director of period dramas, a James Ivory for the masses. He does a fairly decent job with a familiar story, originally filmed in 1946 and made into an excellent musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which was filmed in 1956. The real attraction here is the lavish production, with beautiful scenes shot around Malaysia (apparently Thailand doesn't approve; this film has been banned there).
Foster plays her part just as beautifully, but it's nothing exceptional in relation to her distinguished career. This is a big moment for Chow, who has only made action films before this. I was amazed that he could go through a whole movie without firing a gun. The potential did arise during the end, where there is an attempted insurrection by a defiant general, and military tensions with Burma. These subplots take a little too much time, and threaten to overshadow the main romantic story, just to accomodate Chow's talent. He does a fairly good job keeping it straight, but he's no Rex Harrison or Yul Brynner. At least he's Chinese, and that's probably as close to Siamese that Hollywood can get.
Aside from the any-Asian-is-as-good-as-another casting philosophy (most of the major characters are played by Chinese or Korean actors), Anna and the King is a nice, old-fashioned film suitable for the holiday season. I don't really see any Oscar potential outside of Foster's performance, and even that's a long shot. In a great year of cinematic innovation, I expect more from a candidate. Besides, I'd rather watch The King and I for my money, and I don't mean the animated version (I still can't believe that one).
For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Anna and the King (1999)
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings
Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan