The lovely Jodie Foster makes a valiant effort at bringing a contemporary edge to the role of 19th century schoolteacher Anna Leonowens in “Anna and the King,” the third version of the popular tale, previously filmed as a black-and-white drama, “Anna and the King of Siam,” in 1946, and as a Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical, “The King and I,” in 1956. But her performance is contained in a schmaltzy, ultra-elaborate, overly long production, all too consciously conceived as an old-fashioned family entertainment.
Critics will squabble over this hodgepodge of a movie, which diffuses several of the story’s racial, sexual and political tensions, but pic’s flaws and undemanding nature will work in its favor at the box office. This Fox Christmas release should score high with large audiences, and may turn out to be one of the most commercially successful films of the holiday season.
The most notable element of this production is its large cast of Asian actors, beginning with Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat as King Mongkut, a role formerly played by the severely miscast Rex Harrison and by Yul Brynner in his Oscar-winning and most iconic performance.
Foster, too, is well-cast, giving a different interpretation to the role of the young widow and governess, previously assumed by the graceful Irene Dunne and the ladylike Deborah Kerr.
It’s too bad that, with the exception of animated movies, the concept of family entertainment hardly exists anymore in America, for each element of this epic-scale production, from its lush visuals, wide-screen format and PG-13 rating to its uncritical nature, middlebrow sensibility and positioning of children at the center, is designed to soothe and gratify everyone in a manner of ’50s and ’60s big-budget epics.
Indeed, watching Andy Tennant’s mishmash of a movie is like leafing through a catalogue of Hollywood’s popular adventures of the last four decades, with ideas and images borrowed from “King Solomon’s Mines,” “The Robe,” “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Out of Africa,” and, perhaps least successfully, an effort to evoke the allure of the Forbidden City in “The Last Emperor.”
Framed by a brief voiceover narration from the King’s eldest son, tale begins with the arrival of Anna (Foster) and her son Louis (Tom Felton) in Siam, in 1862. The young British widow, whose husband had died as an officer, has traveled thousands of miles from India to an exotic country largely unknown to the Western world.
Assisted by a Siamese primer, which superficially details the region’s history and customs, she is bound for culture collision. Indeed, as in the previous renditions, the essence of the story is in the dichotomy between East and West.
While impatiently waiting for the King to see her, Anna wanders around the city, which gives helmer and the technical crew an opportunity to engage in pageantry and record in a manner of an extravagant anthropological essay its “bizarre” mores and customs.
Viewers are treated with sweeping vistas of crowded marketplace, exteriors and interiors of the grand Palace, boat rides and picnics by the river, costume balls and festive banquets.
Unbeknownst to Anna, the King’s family consists of numerous wives and concubines and no less than 58 children, whom she is meant to educate in a “scientific” way, one that will help place Siam among countries of the modern world.
As co-scripted by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes, this version brings to the surface humor, particularly in issues of love and sexuality, as when Louis asks his mom why the King has so many wives.
However, explicit as these themes are, they are posited from a child’s point of view, in a precious manner, hence neutralizing their potential provocation.
Anna’s prejudices against the King, who suffers from a barbarian reputation, are matched by the ruler’s own misconceptions about the West in general and women in particular.
Upon arrival, Anna is addressed as “sir,” because women in Siam are stigmatized as inferior. Nonetheless, Anna insists on getting her own house outside the Palace, a promise violated by the monarch.
As played by Foster, Anna comes across as a more stubborn and critical woman than either Dunne or Kerr did.
Predictably, Anna and the King begin to share a growing affection, realizing how deceptive appearances and first impressions are. Anna discovers that Mongkut is a visionary leader, astute politician and humanist, sadly observing his young daughter dying in his arms.
For his part, the King recognizes that Anna has shined a light not only on him and his offspring, but also on the monarchy itself, interfering when a slave runs away from her owner and demanding justice when a concubine is accused of treason.
Since the validity of Anna’s diaries has long been contested by historians, new script not only takes liberties, but also calculatingly reps naive filmmaking that recalls Hollywood of yesteryear.
In its dramatically weak and leisurely paced moments, which are plentiful, pic comes across as cute, particularly in the interaction between the children, and moralistic, with life lessons absorbed by both Anna and the King.
Hence, Anna is told that she is a good teacher and a mother, but an unfulfilled woman who has neglected her personal needs.
It takes exactly 45 minutes for Anna and the King to exchange their first “meaningful” look. From then on, romantic interludes are periodically inserted with at least three nocturnal occasions in which the duo dance cheek-to-cheek.
Undiscriminating viewers will relish the more explicit romantic angle, which in the former versions was delayed to the very end. Both the previous versions were structured around a “mystery” — will Anna stay or will she leave Siam? — a question that hardly matters in this simplistic account.
Foster, who here collects her biggest paycheck to date ($15 million), moves gracefully in period costumes and commands the screen charismatically; her stab at a Victorian accent is respectable if not perfect.
She enjoys strong chemistry with Yun-Fat who, in his first non-action role in an American movie, impresses with his handsome presence and dignified stillness, avoiding the campy buffoonery that defined Yul Brynner’s performance.
Tennant, who last directed “Ever After,” the Cinderella story set in sixteenth century France, gives his new pic a similarly luxuriant treatment, with overwhelming landscapes, massive battles and parades of elephants.
Caleb Deschanel’s widescreen lensing in Malaysia (standing in for Thailand) is eye-popping and probably a reflection of helmer’s conception. Luciana Arrighi’s lavish design, Jenny Beavan’s sumptuous costumes and George Fenton’s melodic score contribute to an extremely sentimental but undeniably gratifying diversion.