Anna and the King is a joy to sit through. The lush, exotic setting; a stirring performance from Jodie Foster; and a charming Chow Yun-Fat make the two and a half hours drift by. One could easily enjoy an afternoon at this movie.
But Anna and the King is full of problems, mostly coming from the script of Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes. There are gratuitous explosions, edits, subplots, and songs, not to mention a muddled message and fuzzy focus.
The movie starts in Bangkok in 1862, just as Anna Leonowens is to arrive. The British schoolteacher is here to teach King Mongkut’s children in the ways of the West. It’s the story told in The King and I, and it’s based on the diaries of Leonowens.
My own prejudiced notions say that this story should be about the culture clash between Siam and Britain, and more to the point, the way this clash works its way into a personal relationship.
For a while, this is exactly the focus of the movie. Anna settles in to the new culture without giving up her Britishness. Her bold, cocky ways make the Siamese bristle, but she remains proud and stoic. Because he invited Anna, King Mongkut knows he should not restrain her. (He quickly learns he cannot restrain her). Instead, he watches her efforts with charmed amusement.
On the other hand, Anna truly is arrogant, at one point stating unquestionably that “The ways of England are the ways of the world.”
Their relationship is flirtatious at first. Their mutual affection reaches its peak at a great Western-style dinner party, where Anna and Mongkut dance.
Afterwards, Mongkut presents Anna with a generous gift — an elaborate gold ring. She of course refuses the gift, which is far too great a token. It represents a new level of seriousness in their relationship where Anna will not go.
Her refusal of the king’s gift casts an ugly light on Anna. The king no longer sees her as charming, but as an arrogant, ungrateful guest, a teacher who needs to be taught a lesson.
The first half of the movie works very well. The chemistry between Foster and Chow is enjoyable and believable. The themes of power, propriety, and respect are played out in every conversation. But the movie loses its focus and intensity. It becomes less about cultures and relationships and more about conflict and resolution.
Little problems abound, but worst of all are the two subplots that hijack center stage. One is of a young couple’s forbidden love, the other is of a military coup. Both ostensibly tie in with the main characters’ relationship. But they are so prominent and distracting that you forget whose movie this is.
The movie loses credibility in its handling of the subplot of the lovers. Mongkut tells Anna that their cultures differ in every respect – including love. The editor (Roger Bondelli) makes a point by immediately cutting to the two lovers who are as Western as Romeo and Juliet. In other words, the movie is choosing sides. It says that Mongkut is wrong about love and that the Western way of love is correct. A movie about culture clashes needs to be more open-minded than this.
It does even worse in its handling of the military coup. What started out as a thoughtful movie about a relationship (a chick flick) now has stunts, plan-blabbing villains, and even a gratuitous explosion (a guy flick). All the while Anna (remember her?) is nowhere to be found. At this point, the entire subplot is irrelevant. The movie’s main relationship has run its course. The 20 minutes it takes to follow the “guy flick” plot should have simply been cut.
If there is a single problem that encapsulates all of the little problems, it is that the movie panders. An explosion for the guys, Romeo and Juliet for the gals, some cute children for the parents, and a pop song over the credits for the teens. There’s no mystery as to why the movie panders: it’s a big-budget studio picture with a Christmas release. It bends over backwards to please all, which it can only do if it is spineless.
I can’t decide if the great-looking spectacle was enough to outweigh the pandering plot. What I am sure of is that this movie could have been so much more.