Anna & the King
directed by Andy Tennant
(20th Century Fox, 1999)

It is a shame that gorgeous, poignant, sweeping epics such as Anna & the King rarely succeed commercially, as they have so much more to offer on so many different levels than your typical box-office smash hits.

I, of course, will watch anything starring Jodie Foster, and I thought she was brilliant in her portrayal of the controversial 19th-century tutor to the children of the king of Siam. I should say that I am judging this movie solely on its own merits as a motion picture; I know nothing about Siamese history and culture, and I have never seen this story as portrayed in The King & I. I do not know if the Siam we see here, most of which was actually filmed on a massive seven-acre lot far from southeast Asia, provides a true picture of the land in question, but what we see here is undeniably beautiful. The filmmakers obviously went to great lengths, preparing everything down to the last detail, to provide a setting for this powerful drama that impacts viewers quite forcefully and takes them to a place they have almost surely never gone before. Not only is the landscape captivating, but the palace, monuments, buildings and religious icons depicted here are exotically stunning, offering even the most Westernized moviegoer the opportunity of seeing and experiencing an entrancing part of Far Eastern culture. Traditions and actions that seem immoral and unacceptable are at least made understandable, and that is the fulcrum upon which East and West can meet and work together.

This is a special love story, one that is enfolded within a complex vista of much larger, sweeping human dramas. Some might say the romance falls short, but I believe that the type of romance explored in this movie represents perhaps the toughest form of true love; what it lacks in demonstrable passion, it more than makes up for in depth of feeling.

English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) has come to Siam (via India) to instruct the king's oldest son in English, but quite clearly she is not the type of schoolteacher the king expected as she refuses to fully embrace the protocols of Siam. She is committed to showing King Mongkut (Yun-Fat Chow) the respect he deserves, but she stands in his presence, seeks him out rather than waiting to be summoned and expresses her feelings and beliefs in a manner that would never be tolerated from a Siamese subject of the king.

The king obviously admires her spirit, asking her to teach not only his eldest son but all 58 of his children, one of his wives and one of his concubines. The children do not respond to her very well at first, a fact which is not helped in the short run by her own son's spirit of independence, but her compassionate disciplinary ways soon make of her the kind of teacher Mongkut wants for his children. In time, she and King Mongkut develop a fairly close yet perfectly innocent relationship of their own, sharing a mutual bond of love for the children. Anna is never afraid to tell Mongkut what she thinks or to get involved in situations her conscience will not allow her to ignore, and a mutual understanding and respect is forged among these paragons of culturally different virtues.

All the while, revolution is stirring in the land, and the king's throne and life itself are placed in great danger, yet Anna's presence and fierce spirit of goodness emerge as a secret weapon that stands to change the very fabric of Siam itself.

As wonderful and Oscar-worthy as Foster's performance is here, Chow's is even better. King Mongkut is a complicated man, one who cares deeply about his family and country, seeking to connect with the western world in order to promote the betterment of both. He does a magical job of balancing the burdens of a difficult kingship with those of a loving father and a very human man. Tom Felton is also good as Anna's son Louis, although it took me a few minutes to see him in this new light once I realized I was watching Harry Potter's nemesis Draco Malfoy in the role, and the children of King Mongkut are all portrayed masterfully by the whole cast of child actors and actresses. How this movie did not sweep the Academy Awards for 1999 is a mystery to me.

Anna & the King is a movie you can easily and happily immerse yourself in, journeying to a very different world and fully investing yourself emotionally in the drama focused on Anna and Mongkut. The behind the scenes features afford a way of appreciating even more fully the job everyone associated with this motion picture did, and the deleted scenes offer a most interesting extended opening and ending to a wondrous picture stretched across 148 minutes in its finished form. If you have a heart, Anna & the King will speak to it, and you will feel touched in a very special way after watching it.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 5 June 2004

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