December 17, 1999
A Look at... Anna and The King - THE COMMENTARY
By Joseph Planta
VANCOUVER - Before donning the role of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison donned the towering role of the King of Siam in the 1946 film, Anna and The King of Siam. Based on the memoirs of a real Anna Leonowens, Irene Dunne played Anna opposite Mr. Harrison’s King. When remade on the Broadway stage, as a musical, the legendary Gertrude Lawrence played Anna opposite a towering Yul Brynner, who eventually made a career out of the one role. (Mr. Brynner also played the part in the 1956 movie, opposite the enchanting Deborah Kerr.)
This time around director Andy Tennant, who miraculously transformed Drew Barrymore into Cinderella in Ever After, does the same to two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster, who plays the ever-British Anna in this latest remake. Hong Kong action-man Chow Yun-Fat plays the King and does so with a commanding presence, that hasn’t been seen since the one Mr. Brynner trotted the boards with his own bare feet. But, not too commanding, because in movies like these the tough and crusty guy, becomes soft, always, by credits role.
The story is about a British widow who is set off to Siam, to become the teacher of the King’s 68 or so children. She attempts to do her job, but encounters some trouble as the Burmese forces try to undermine the King’s rule in late 19th Century Siam, now Thailand. The king fights desperately to secure his rule and an attempt by the British empire to colonialize his beloved Siam.
After a short dance by a Thai dance troupe, at the screening last night, Kevin Hayes of CKNW said that this film would go on to a truckload of Oscar nominations. Well, it certainly looks the part. It’s epic, big-budget and exudes grandeur and style. What it doesn’t do is provide a huge divaesque scene where Foster would break down or sob endlessly, as is the custom with Oscar nominated material. Chow Yun-Fat plays the part of the King, brilliantly. He makes a jaded and crusty curmudgeon, as jaded and crusty as possible, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of lifting our spirits by movies end. Sadly, his work as good and surprising as it was, won’t make the Oscar cut, just because.
Anna and the King gives us an epic and exotic history lesson for our time, sans the Rodgers and Hammerstein music. It evokes comparisons to the great epics Hollywood used to crap out by the dozen. It had breathtakingly spectacular art direction and equally spectacular costumes and cinematography; probably the only categories that it could possibly be nominated in.
All in all, Foster’s British accent stands the test of celluloid. As impressive as it was, I was confused, much like the People Weekly reviewer who said, “It flirts between a tropical travelogue, romantic drama, Thai history lesson, and an action-adventure film.” I have to agree, it touched all of those bases, and still managed to keep my interest.
As the film opens with a wide crane shot of a bustling market, Foster exclaims to her young son, in a most imperialistic and oh so British way, “The ways of England are the ways of the world.”
If Andy Tennant is British and if this film were too, Britannia can colonize all of Hollywood.
Anna and the King opens today.
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