ANNA AND THE KING, lavish, lovely to look, the third run at the story of the English lady at the court of 1860’s Siam is also a long haul, close to lifeless as drama, drained of the fun that made the earlier versions memorable.
Directed in coffee table style by Andy Tennant, it crawls through extraneous subplots and dubious updating to try and make it fit the “more politically and culturally aware” audiences of 1999: we scoff into our Pad Thai.
Let’s applaud the good stuff first. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is a bonus, enhancing the extensive sets and elaborate costumes. Unlike the 1946 Anna and the King of Siam and 1956 The King and I, confined to studio sets, this $92,000,000 expansion went full-on location. Not to Thailand, angered by the treatment, but southern neighbor Malaysia, providing jungle, rivers and some sense of tropical climate. Daring Chinese-American actress Bai Ling makes an impassioned ‘Tuptim’. The Art Direction and Costume Design drew Oscar nominations. The needless action scenes at least provide one heck of an explosion, blasting a river span to smithereens in what looks like an attempt to summon a link with The Bridge On The River Kwai.
But the trappings and Ling’s sensual expressiveness aren’t enough to lift the rest of the story from torpor. Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes script is a mess, a bland, obvious porridge of insipid dialogue, glaring behavioral anachronisms and foolish insertion of action scenes that are jarringly out-of-kilter with both history and tone. Chow Yun-Fat is an impressive presence in the roughneck battlers that made him a star (and the magisterial Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) but he’s a stone wall as the King, his only edge over the great interpretations from Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner is that they weren’t Asian—ah, but we’ll get to that. *
Jodie Foster as Anna brings her considerable range of expression to bear, but her British accent feels too carefully precise, more like a deft impression than a convincing immersion: in one of her biggest productions (and paid a whopping $15mil) she gives perhaps her least affecting performance. The direction and writing don’t help. Eleven-year-old Tom Felton plays her tasking son Louis: you can see the spirit of Draco Malfoy waiting to emerge.
A wan gross of $39,300,000 put it 51st in the States, buoyed by $74,734,000 earned elsewhere. With Randall Luke Kim, Syid Alwi and Lim Kay Siu. 147 minutes.
* The script’s kitchen-sink updating takes colonialism to task (fair enough) and strives to make a now-liberated audience feel a rush of sisterhood when Anna/Jodie boldly asserts herself in ways that would never have happened in real life, not just in a despotic patriarchy, but anywhere in the frickin’ 1860’s (granted, most of the original story, and subsequent tellings, were also fanciful). Fine, fine, eat a cracker and take a breath. Oh, but the casting…in 1999 the p.c. commandos were budding tulips compared to the all-poisoning triffids rampaging today like the Western version of Mao’s Red Guards, rewriting history by trying to beat it senseless. If we’re going to bow to their killjoy illogic we should do more than simply slight Hong Kong’s icon Chow-Yun Fat or praise China’s challenging Bai Ling: we should cancel them. See, you guilty dogs, while their skin tones and facial features don’t require the makeup that aided Rex, Yul & Co, they’re also not THAI. !#$@&*! The other supporting actors playing (it’s called acting) Siamese are Chinese-American, Malaysian and Singaporean. How in the name of Charles E. Chan could this affront be permitted? How dare the movie be made in the first place? Maybe we should ban fiction while we’re at it. How come these finger-wagging, eye-poking gerbils are given rein to run roughshod over countless artisans hard creative work, trash both our collective and personal memories—they know how you and I think and feel, what a burden—and lacerate simple-folk entertainment escapes from the actual death spiral of civilization? Hmm…aren’t there more pressing things to tantrum over? Not enough that we’re being slowly boiled alive, we have be churned into a spiceless gruel at the same time? Leave the gun, take the curry.