Anna and the King

Halfway through Being John Malkovich, when Catherine Keener looked into the eyes of John Malkovich and saw the soul of the woman she loved, she raised the curtain on a new, funky kind of screen romance. It’s hard to regress from that to the conventional repressed romance of Anna and the King, one more women’s weepie in which we’re supposed to sigh and honor the restraint of the two romantic leads as they spend two hours or more denying their feelings. The best example of this sort of film in the ’90s was The Remains of the Day; the many Hollywood variations since — The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer, and so on — have done little to improve on it.

Three questions answered right away: Yes, Jodie Foster fakes a serviceable accent as Anna Leonowens, the widowed British schoolteacher who journeys to Siam with her young son. Yes, Chow Yun-Fat is quietly charismatic as King Mongkut, the monarch who hires Anna to teach his dozens of children. And yes, the film is an elegant bit of eye candy (cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who shot The Black Stallion, is a whiz at picture-postcard images). The movie is handsome and well-appointed, with lonely good moments scattered across its two hours and 28 minutes, but it’s still one of the most boring films in recent memory. I was reminded of the far superior Kundun, which had no plot but exerted a strong hold on our visual imagination. Anna and the King has too much plot tripping up its enchantment.

Anna and King Mongkut forge an amiably combative bond the minute they lay eyes on each other. The King, it seems, is tired of women (and men) grovelling on the floor before him all the time; he’s excited by a free-thinker like Anna, who dares to remain standing in his presence. Anna, for her part, is attracted to the King because … well, he’s played by Chow Yun-Fat; the script (credited to Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes) provides little other reason.

The British schoolmarm and the Asian god spend many, many scenes enlightening each other; the movie at its worst is like a lecture on comparative culture. I experienced more than a little deja vu, having recently caught up with director Andy Tennant’s previous movie, the likable Ever After, in which a proto-feminist Cinderella (Drew Barrymore) challenged and debated the Prince until he had no choice but to fall in love with her. Apparently, all these monarchs need is a gutsy woman to set them straight and tell them when they’re being jerks. Tennant has a solid eye for visuals; he also has an eye on the women in the audience who like being flattered with the notion that they, too, could sway a man of royalty with their ideas.

A subplot involving some of the King’s rebellious men — who want to go to war with the Burmese against the King’s will — sucks most of the life out of the movie and distracts from the already dubious magic of the romance. The only redeeming virtue of the scenes of palace intrigue is the impressive actor Randall Duk Kim, as the brutal General Alak; his saturnine features and weary delivery of stock evil dialogue reminded me of John Hurt. But this story thread just leads to an intelligence-insulting climax involving an exploding bridge. Do all movies have to end like Lethal Weapon these days?

Foster and Chow Yun-Fat occasionally get a pleasant rhythm going together, and their best moment comes when tragedy strikes: the King’s anguish barely held in check by the stoicism required of a monarch; Anna’s grief-stricken expression as she struggles not to weep openly (Foster is lighted so that her eyes seem ripped open by fishhooks). Chow Yun-Fat acquits himself well in his first major Hollywood role without gunplay. Though he’s sometimes a bit hard to understand (to be fair, I wonder how intelligible Foster’s lines of Chinese dialogue are to Chinese listeners), he gives the movie whatever dignity it has, and he steals the film right out from under Foster, who often seems preoccupied with maintaining her accent. Anna and the King ends on an elegant note, but it’s not enough to wipe out our memory of that idiotically explosive climax; the movie has already lost face, and our interest with it.

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