As far as the Siamese people are concerned, there has never been an adequate adaptation of what really went on behind the walls of their royal palace at the turn of the last century. Perhaps we'll never know what happened between Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut. Maybe it doesn't even matter. After all, the truth is rarely as satisfying as fiction. As far as fables go, Andy Tennant's Anna and the King (1999) is no more or less a betrayal of that private history than Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, or the 1946 Fox film that bares a closer resemblance to Tennant's reincarnation; or even the novelized accounts penned from a very British manifest destiny perspective by Margaret Landon, based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens herself.
No, the importance of such an exercise is not to be found in history, but in our collective sense of the romantic. Just how Madam Leonowens came to be tutor to King Mongkut’s many royal children is a matter of public record. The accounts of what went on thereafter are more suspect and open to interpretations: particularly as what we largely have come to accept as fact was written from a decidedly self-appointed impression made by an academic about the civilizing of foreign peoples and the dissemination of Christianity in a part of the world equally visited upon by open hearts and pointed bayonets.
Overestimating her own importance, the story of Anna’s travels to Siam has been made into three films, a Broadway smash and short-lived television series – illustrating the durability of the myth and its renewed marketability as popular entertainment. Yet, in Andy Tennant’s Anna and the King we perhaps find the most reverent attempt to downplay 'the facts'.
As scripted by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes, this revised narrative is brought to life by Jodi Foster's subtly nuanced portrait of Anna, and acclaimed action star, Chow Yung Fat's bold delivery of the commanding potentate as also a most loving and tender father figure - both to his many children and his people. As such, this East meets West melodrama perhaps best delineates some of the essential truths behind the fiction. Mongkut was neither tyrant nor softy, but an enigmatic blend of smoothness and sandpaper. Anna was hardly the divining/liberating force against social oppression so much as she became a well-timed catalyst who perhaps inspired the King to come to his own decisions.
Shot mostly in Thailand, director Tennant and his team were faced with considerable challenges in resurrecting the long forgotten, forbidden city of Mongkut’s time from scratch. Luciana Arrighi’s production design and Tom Nursey’s art direction extols a richness of the Orient and all its glamorous mystery befitting the perceived wealth and respectability of Mongkut’s aristocracy. Jenny Beaven’s costume designs yield some of the most impressive vintage garments to date. All of this sumptuousness is vibrantly captured in Caleb Deschanel’s breathtaking cinematography.
As for story: Anna (Foster) arrives in Siam to discover a King (Fat) who does not recall his promise of providing his newly appointed school teacher with a house of her own adjacent the palace walls. Coping with this setback, Anna begins her education of Mongkut’s many children. Her lessons to the point and under her tutelage her pupils’ horizons considerably expand.
Mongkut’s concept for a new and progressive Siam conflicts with the social rigidity of past regimes. Even in his own, Mongkut is readily opposed by the Kralahome (Syed Alwi) and Gen. Alak (Randall Duk Kim) who are silently plotting a political overthrow.
In the meantime, the British have assessed Siam’s civil instability as cause for concern. Indeed, the countryside is infested with unsavory characters whose murderous rampage has frequently interrupted their lucrative trading. As such the British empire has been seriously considering the annexation of Siam as a protectorate. Though Anna is British, she has developed a quiet aversion toward her country's influences abroad. Moreover, she has experienced a great affection, not only for her pupils and the people of Siam but also in a strangely unsettling, if unrequited romance for its ruler. It is, in retrospect, highly unlikely that these fleeting romantic dalliances were ever reciprocated by the King.
Indeed, even Anna’s own memoirs were mum on revealing her true affections. It is Landon’s novelized account that introduces this romantic possibility, one that has long since eclipsed fact with fiction. To assert his authority and prove to the British that he is not a barbarian, Mongkut decides to throw a lavish dinner party at the palace. Meanwhile, in another courtyard the King’s latest connubial acquisition, Tuptim (Bai Ling) is plotting her escape with a lover.
At the party, Anna interrupts the authoritative condemnations of Mycroft Kincaid (Bill Stewart), a pompous industrialist of the East India Trading Co. who is also working behind the scenes with Gen. Alak to overthrow the government. She illustrates her allegiances to the King by sharing with him a waltz, raising more than a few eyebrows on either side of the court over this seemly defiance of traditions.
The next day, Anna is privy to the plot to overthrown the kingdom when the King’s loyal brother, Prince Chowfa (Kay Siu Lim) is brutally murdered by Alak while attempting to warn Mongkut. Seeing the inevitable trap the King and his army are marching into, Anna takes matters into her own hands and arrives before the ambush to help stage a faux battle that will deflect the full brunt of Alak's forces and intimidate him into submission once and for all.
What this film has, more than any of its predecessors, is artistic authenticity. From the conceptualization of the royal palace – a miracle of exact reconstruction - to its casting of real Asians to play Asians, Anna and the King suggests a glamorized, but not idealized period in the country's history that is refreshingly in step with contemporary sensibilities while retaining a glimmer of that ancient time-honored tradition for the glossy, frothy romance. There is style and integrity in this story – a delicate cakewalk that both the script and its actors achieve with decorum, pride and determination.
Anna may still begin the title of this film, but it is the King who leads by example throughout the story's narrative as a benevolent man of immense integrity and personal involvement in both his children and his country’s welfare. Jodie Foster's Anna is perhaps a tad too bristling at the start of the film, though she gradually develops a palpable warmth that humanizes her character and draws out her sense of womanhood away and apart from the stale pages of that nearly forgotten historical text.
Chow Yun Fat is idyllic casting; generating a true majesty, though never without genuine heart at the center of his performance. In the end we are left with the same old story – well...sort of; that of an impossible romance set against a backdrop of civil unrest. The story is still worthy of its multiple reincarnations on film. But this Anna and the King is most flattering to both its central figures.
Fox Home Video’s DVD is quite stunning. A near reference quality disc with eye-popping brilliant colors, pronounced and well-delineated flesh tones, fine detail realized throughout and sharp – though not harsh – contrast levels. Truly – this disc will not disappoint. Occasionally, there is a minor hint of edge enhancement, but this most certainly does not distract. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers quite a powerful kick. Extras include an HBO First Look and the film’s theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)