December 20, 1999 -- "Anna and the King" is yet another adaptation, like "The King and I" and "Anna and the King of Siam" based on the writings of Anna Leonownens, governess to the Court of Siam in the 1860s.
It was a time when England had a vast colonial empire and the British thought their way was the best way. Anna (played by Jodie Foster of "Contact") went to work in 1862 as an English instructor in the court of King Mongkut (played by Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat). She taught some five dozen of his offspring produced by some two dozen of his wives and numerous concubines.
Anna becomes more than the teacher of his children, however, she also becomes his confidant, and later, the love of his life. She also sets out to change the king, the country (now known as Thailand) and its traditions. She refuses to kneel and scrape for the king and she insists on discipline in her school, even for the heir apparent. The king respects her strength and independence and comes to admire her intelligence.
The king is proud, stubborn, but wise in his own way. He sees that Anna has not gotten over the death of her husband and has not gotten on with her life. The two finally part ways after a cruel execution, but are brought back together by a threat to the royal family. The story works well enough as a romance. Chow Yun-Fat plays a strong and confident king. He also proves to be an on-screen equal to the strong performance of Foster.
It always sets my teeth on edge when you've got a white westerner like Anna inserting herself into a situation like this with easy answers. She opposes slavery, but slavery was still going on in parts of the U.S. at the time this story is set and the British couldn't completely wipe the blood of slavery off their hands at this time, either. For that matter, polygamy was also being practiced in the U.S. at that time, although it wasn't widely accepted. The movie tries to take the edge off of some of these imperialist dogmas, but doesn't entirely succeed. An interesting view of how modern Thais view Anna's story can be found at this page set up by Thai students.
If these Thai students are correct, Anna made up a lot of this story, including part of the movie involving the cruel and unjust beheading of two young lovers. In Anna's diary it is a burning, not a beheading and she saw it with her own eyes, not as depicted in the film. If this execution is a fabrication, as the Thais argue, this would certainly take the edge off some criticisms that Anna shouldn't have been drawn to such a cruel king. Regardless of whether it happened or not, the movie makes a good case for the argument that it was Anna herself that caused the beheadings, by her own careless interference. In any case, it would be interesting to see a more historically accurate account of this story.
In any case, the scenery, filmed in Maylasia, is beautiful (Fox originally wanted to film it in Thailand, but were not allowed to because of what the Thais regarded as historical inaccuracies in the script). The set design and art direction are first-class and the costumes are sumptuous. Some of the children of the king, Anna students, are very well played by young actors. Ling Bai ("Wild Wild West") plays Tuptim, one of the young lovers in a very moving performance. The story, of epic proportions, has Anna doing everything from battling injustice in Siamese courts to battling rebel forces on the battlefield. It is all just a bit much. The film rates a C.
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