Saturday, June 6, 2015

Neglected Gem # 77: Anna and the King (1999)

Anna and the King
marks the fourth time the movies have revisited Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam, based on the memoirs of the Englishwoman, Anna Leonowens, who tutored the children of Siam’s King Mongkut in the mid-nineteenth century. The first adaptation, in 1946, with Irene Dunne as a stiff-necked Anna, smiling that knocked-on-the-noggin Irene Dunne smile, and Rex Harrison done up in ballooning silk knee pants as the King, was rather preposterous. (Lee J. Cobb as Harrison’s Kralahome, or Prime Minister, with burnt amber all over his face and chest, was one of the prime kitsch elements.) But the big, handsome production was very enjoyable nonetheless. The hit Rodgers & Hammerstein musical version, The King and I, came to the screen in 1956, with Yul Brynner repeating his Broadway performance as the monarch whose efforts to bring his tiny country into the modern world has to overcome the obstacle of his own obstinacy, and Deborah Kerr taking over where stage star Gertrude Lawrence had left off. This time it felt as if everyone associated with the project had been knocked on the head. And those who associate the story of the Siamese ruler and the governess with Brynner’s cutesy pidgin English (which won him the Academy Award) and “Getting to Know You” may have little desire to check out this version, with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat in the leading roles. (Disney released a cartoon version of the musical earlier the same year – an embarrassing reminder, even for those of us who didn’t make it past the trailers, of how icky some of the songs are.) And that would be a pity, because Anna and the King, adapted by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes and directed by Andy Tennant, does almost everything right that the earlier versions did wrong.

You feel a surge of confidence in Tennant’s captaincy of the material in the opening sequence, where Anna and her son Louis (Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) and their two Indian servants – Anna has been living in India, where her husband, an officer, was killed – thread their way through the bustling port of Bangkok and are transported to the palace. Tennant offers us multiple perspectives on the majestic fairy-tale set Luciana Arrighi has designed, and the great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel lights every one differently. These images are lush and expansive; you feel as if you could spend your life in these surroundings and never see everything. The immensity of the environment lends a perhaps not entirely accidental irony to Anna’s first complaint about her new employer – that he’s installed her in his palace, where she is to teach his four or five dozen offspring as well as his wives, rather than in a home of her own. Her intractability seems unreasonable and even unattractive in this magnificent physical setting. (Later he gives her the house she’s so set on – a gracious riverside dwelling that, for perhaps the first time in the movie, brings a smile to her wary face. In the 1946 film, he punishes her by having her taken to a dark, rat-infested hovel so that she has no choice but to return to her rooms at the palace.)

Jodie Foster and Tom Felton

In the other versions of this story, the King is willful and so unused to being challenged in any way that Anna’s insistence and self-righteousness are made to seem like plain logic. Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s because she’s white and English and thus possesses a superior world view. We’re supposed to develop a fondness for Rex Harrison’s or Yul Brynner’s eccentric, bull-headed King, but there isn’t a single incident in these movies that suggests that she might be wrong and he might be right. Meerson and Krikes give Mongkut the benefit of the doubt. They place the story in a historical context that allows us to understand the delicate diplomatic strokes he has to pull off in order to protect his country from an apparent threat of Burmese invasion without exciting the wrath of England, Burma’s colonial power. They make him thoughtful, contemplative, far-seeing; they give him reasons for his behavior. When his most recent wife, the beautiful Tuptim (an emotionally full performance by Bai Ling), tries to escape to be near her lover, who’s become a monk, and is found with her hair shorn, dressed in the costume of a novice, both the young people are tortured, though the man is in fact innocent of wrongdoing. Appalled by what seems to her the barbarism of their treatment, Anna flies to the King, making a great noise as she rushes from the courtroom about seeing to it that he corrects this injustice. Mongkut is furious at her interference: he tells her that she has made it impossible for him to save the girl’s life – that now he must have her executed in order to save face, or it will look as if he is being ruled by an Englishwoman. (Though we mourn Tuptim’s fate and that of her celibate sweetheart, his explanation makes so much sense that later, when he tells Anna privately that he now realizes she was right, his reversal feels tacked on.)

Chow Yun-Fat
I suspect that Jodie Foster may have taken this role because she viewed Anna Leonowens as a feminist precursor, though the filmmakers want us to see Anna’s England-centered vision of the world critically. But Foster’s stiffness as a performer works against the character. Despite her clunky acting-class accent Foster is almost too well cast as a repressed Victorian; she’s so unyielding in some scenes that you want to throw up your hands and shout her down. The Chinese action film star Chow Yun-Fat has a warm, wry presence, there’s a lovely recessive quality to his line readings, and, garbed in Jenny Beavan’s sumptuous creations, he’s a superb camera subject. (The sets and costumes have been designed in an Arabian Nights palette; they’d thrill the child in any viewer.) If in the earlier movies the contest between Anna and the King is unfairly weighted in her favor, in this one the reverse is true. The dramatic arc of the story is Anna’s growing recognition that she has found a home in Siam; here that acknowledgement is enhanced by her new understanding that it has a culture of its own that must be taken on its own terms. And that is, of course, the way a contemporary filmmaker would need to approach this situation, just as he would need to fill the Asian roles with Asian actors. (In addition to Chow Yun-Fat and Bai Ling, Syed Alwi as the Kralahome, Randall Duk Kim as the traitorous General Alak, Keith Chin as the Crown Prince Chulalongkorn – Anna’s most brilliant and challenging pupil – and Deanna Yusoff as his mother, the head wife Lady Thiang, make you feel grateful that we no longer have to do things the old way.) Meerson and Krikes blur Anna’s transition; it seems that one day she just wakes up spouting a different kind of political rhetoric. But emotionally the shift works, because when you see Siam through Andy Tennant’s eyes you can’t imagine anyone failing to fall in love with this enchanted place.

The movie has such a voluptuous romantic sweep that you can sympathize with the filmmakers’ impulse to imbue the relationship between the two protagonists with a little romance, too. (The musical settles for a pseudo-romance: they’re in each other’s arms long enough for the “Shall We Dance?” number to play out, but there’s no follow-through.) It’s a mistake to suggest that Mongkut and Anna’s attraction to each other is romantic, though – it feels forced. And the last half hour, where she proves her love for him while managing to save both his life and his kingdom, is more than just a mistake; it’s a folly – even though no one is likely to complain, given Chow Yun-Fat’s charm and the intelligence of his acting, that this is the only version of the material that doesn’t end by killing off the king. Fortunately, the movie is good enough to survive the wrong turns in the final sequences. It contains marvelously affecting scenes: Tuptim giving testimony, and the death of the little princess (Melissa Campbell), her father’s favorite, who wilts like a cut blossom while her mourners, careful not to offend the gods, fight their tears. Afterwards, in tribute to the fallen child, the royal family sends a fleet of candles out to sea. In Gillian Armstrong’s exquisite 1994 film of Little Women, the grieving housekeeper crushes rose petals and scatters them over the bed of the departed Beth; I’ve always thought that in that moment Armstrong approached D.W. Griffith. In the scene with the flickering candles on the water, Tennant approaches Armstrong. Anna and the King wraps us up in the beauties of a faraway world. Tennant made Ever After, which gave a contemporary twist to the Cinderella story; this seems to be his specialty – exotic tales shaped with a modern-day sensibility but never condescended to. His fairy-tale epic is one of the most emotionally involving movies of its year.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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