A modern interpretation of the 1956 musical THE KING AND I, as well as the earlier ANNA AND THE KING (1946), ANNA AND THE KING is a well-intentioned, aesthetically beautiful movie that may well win the praise of many critics. Although lovely, relatively clean and charming, this movie lacks the liveliness of the musical version. Stripped of Oscar Hammerstein’s delightful score and Yul Brynner’s unforgettable comedic performance, the story of Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam is just a little dull.
To its credit, ANNA AND THE KING sticks pretty closely to the original plot. Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) is an English schoolteacher who travels to Siam (now Thailand) to tutor King Mongkut’s (Yun-Fat Chow) multitudinous children. Because of her outspoken opinions and intelligence (qualities unheard of in a Siamese woman), she soon becomes an advisor to the King, who is struggling to protect Siam from British colonialism. Anna aids the King in teaching him to work with the British rather than against them. Despite the vast cultural gulf between them, Anna and the King fall in love, though their romance never goes past a dance together, smoldering looks and verbal confessions of ardor.
The story has been politically “corrected” a bit for modern times. All versions of ANNA AND THE KING have explored the cultural and political tensions between East and West, and this story keeps to that theme, but the King is now a dignified, masculine leader rather than a Charlie-Chan buffoon, and Anna’s attempts to radically alter ancient Siamese customs, as when she chides the King about his numerous wives, are gently questioned rather than accepted. The British are largely portrayed as greedy mercenaries who threaten Siam’s sovereignty and way of life.
This didacticism, however, is not heavy-handed. Anna is not made a fool for wanting to inject Christian morals and wisdom into the Siamese culture, as some might expect from a modern film in these P.C. times. She is still a highly sympathetic character who is simply overzealous in her desire for immediate change. As the King wisely points out, her ideas are not wrong, but change must come slowly in a culture steeped in ancient tradition. The King eventually learns the value of monogamy, for example, in his own time, in his heart as well as his head, when he falls in love with Anna. He discovers that it is possible to love only one person, and that Anna alone is truly “enough.”
ANNA AND THE KING also treats Buddhism more respectfully than in the past, but it does not endorse or celebrate the religion, it simply depicts it matter-of-factly rather than portraying it as quaint. Regrettably, Christianity only receives a fleeting mention, but it is not deemed inferior to Buddhism. Only one scene directly addresses the Christian-Buddhist dichotomy, and then only ambiguously: Anna and the King, both heartsick about an impending execution, seek solace in their faith by praying to their respective deities. In a highly dramatic sequence, the camera alternates between an image of the King kneeling before a statue of Buddha and of Anna reading her Bible and mopping her brow. Suddenly, Anna flings her Bible to the floor in frustration, where it falls apart, and she sweeps a teaset off a table. The camera continues to pan between the broken Bible and the King in prayer. No divine intervention occurs, and the lovers are executed. The meaning of this juxtaposition of the two religions is unclear, and the Christian-Buddhist issue does not arise again, but the fact that Anna fails to find consolation in the Bible, and even flings it aside, is bothersome. The King later assures Anna that he believes the lovers have found eternal “peace” in the natural cycle of Buddhism, implying that he has found solace in his faith.
For the most part, however, ANNA AND THE KING is a morally upstanding movie. Anna’s relationship with the King remains pure, and violence, although necessary since the story deals with political unrest and an attempted coup, is kept to a minimum and devoid of gore. Anna’s moral convictions about the sanctity of marriage and the wrongs of slavery are affirmed.
Production-wise, the movie is beautifully filmed with gorgeous costumes, breathtaking scenery, brilliant oriental colors, and skillful cinematography. Siam seems a paradise, a nirvana yet unspoiled by avarice.
Despite these charms, however, ANNA AND THE KING drags somewhat. At two hours and 15 minutes, it is too long for its mostly tranquil plot. Also, despite its lush scenery, the movie seems a little sterile. Even during scenes where musical accompaniment is essential, ANNA AND THE KING completely omits all of the music of THE KING AND I, most disappointingly during the famous and climactic waltz scene, where the absence of “Shall We Dance?” is keenly felt. The King’s children are still cute as buttons, but they would be cuter still if they would only sing a few bars of “Getting to Know You.” Also, although the evolution of the King into a stately, commanding persona is well-intentioned, the movie lost its humor with the change. Surely director Andy Tennant could have found a way to inject comedy into the story without making the King look silly. Finally, while Jodie Foster turns in her usual laudable performance, she simply lacks romantic appeal. She fails to effectively convey Anna’s pent-up, conflicted feelings for the King, and his attraction to her is not entirely believable.
Still, this movie may win awards for its sheer beauty, and perhaps receive acclaim for its good-heartedness. ANNA AND THE KING is a rare movie from Hollywood: a compassionate portrayal of cultural tensions, with a sexually pure love story to boot.
(B, C, FR, PC, V, S, N, D, M) Mainly moral worldview ultimately endorsing monogamy with implied Christian, Bible-reading heroine with several matter-of-fact references to Buddhism, Buddhist teachings, Buddhist prayer scenes, appearance of Buddhist icons, & mild politically correct elements; no foul language; mild violence including murder by shooting, poisoning, hanging (no gore), implied execution by sword, & fighting; polygamy & implied adultery (with concubines); upper male nudity; cigar smoking rebuked by heroine; and, deceit.
ANNA AND THE KING is a well-intentioned, beautiful movie that still lacks the musical version’s liveliness. Jodie Foster plays Anna Leonowens, an English schoolteacher who travels to Siam (now Thailand) to tutor the King’s multitudinous children. Because of her outspoken opinions and intelligence (qualities unheard of in a Siamese woman), she soon becomes an advisor to the King, who is struggling to protect Siam from British colonialists. Anna teaches the King to work with the British rather than against them. Despite the vast cultural gulf between them, they fall in love, though their romance never goes past dancing together and verbal confessions of ardor.
In this version, the King is now a dignified, masculine leader rather than a buffoon. Anna’s attempts to radically alter ancient Siamese customs are gently questioned rather than accepted. Morally, the King eventually learns the value of monogamy, and Anna’s moral convictions about marriage and slavery are affirmed. ANNA AND THE KING treats Buddhism more respectfully than past adaptations but does not endorse or celebrate it. Beautifully filmed with gorgeous costumes, scenery and colors, it is a compassionate portrayal of cultural tensions, with a sexually pure love story