"Anna and the King" is old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its best and what some might call its schmaltziest. It's a grandiose, exotically placed undertaking of the sort that's invariably described as a sweeping epic: gorgeous scenery, eye-popping pageantry, lavish costumes, historical themes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
The movie, based on the diaries of the real-life Anna Leonowens, is the third screen incarnation of the English schoolmarm's sojourn in the court of King Mongkut of what is now Thailand. Actually it's the fourth, if last year's sad animated adaptation of "The King and I" counts. Though the truthfulness of Leonowens's scribblings has long been contested, the tale of unrequited love and cultural dissonance may have more lives than a Siamese cat.
In the 1956 screen adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, the cast frequently broke into toe-tapping numbers. And Yul Brynner, who would play the role 4,000 times onstage, won an Oscar for his stubborn, chauvinist king. But don't expect bald heads and the whistling of happy tunes in director Andy Tennant's ("Ever After") more historically accurate version. Along with changes in the story line, the traditional buffoonish characterization of Mongkut--in fact one of the most beloved and progressive monarchs in Thai history--has been drastically altered to conform with the record.
Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat, best known for John Woo shoot-'em-ups, is the movie's biggest surprise and greatest asset as Mongkut. Instead of ferocity, he brings sexiness and a regal bearing--and lots of hair--to the role, imbuing the character with masculinity, tenderness and humor rather than childish machismo.
Jodie Foster, as the outspoken Anna, sets off more sparks here than she has opposite previous leading men such as Mel Gibson and Richard Gere. Foster seems to have developed a case of Streisanditis--she just can't get enough of those close-ups--and she's no threat to Meryl Streep when it comes to mastering accents. She's nevertheless well cast as the prim but plucky Victorian widow who journeys with her young son to the Far East to dwell among the heathen and tutor the 58 children of the king.
She and Mongkut are mutually suspicious and then, after East gets to know West a little better, are surprised to discover that they can learn a great deal about life from each other. In the process, they fall in love. Alas, the romance is a chaste one, and the lovers touch only while waltzing cheek to cheek at a splendid palace shindig. For Mongkut is married to his country. Never mind his many wives and concubines.
The screenplay by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes enriches the tragic romance between the king's concubine Tuptim (the glowing Bai Ling) and the boyfriend she left behind. The young lovers' fate evokes a profound change in Anna's imperious nature and her relationship with the king. The creative team has also added palace intrigue and battle scenes, and, mercifully, canned the children's reenactment of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Still, the production is haunted by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and there are times when you may swear you just heard a song cue.
Anna and the King (147 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence.