Thursday, October 2, 2008


The surplus of pomp in "Anna and the King" (**1/2 out of ****) cannot hide its scarcity of passion. The fourth account of forbidden love between a widowed English governess and Asian royalty boasts impressive authenticity, but "Ever After" director Andy Tennant and co-scripters Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes neglect the heart of the story. When the climactic showdown between the hero and villain tops the best scene between the heroine and the hero, the filmmakers should have known they had emphasized the wrong elements. Credibly cast as they are, Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat come up short on chemistry because their roles allow them little intimacy. Ostensibly, "Anna and the King" emerges as an above-average historical costumer undercut by its dearth of romance.

"Anna and the King" takes place in Siam during the 1860s. Anna arrives by ship in Bangkok with her son, Louis (Tom Felton) and two Indian servants to tutor the King's son in the 'scientific' ways of the West. Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster of "Contact") finds herself immediately at odds with the monarch and the savage customs of Siam. She demands that he honors his word and allows her to live outside the walls of his palace, but he insists that she live within them. Eventually, in a contest of wills and wits, they grow to tolerate each other and he bestows on her an elegant house in the country. Later, instead of tutoring only his son, King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat of "The Killer") orders her to teach all 58 of his children! The relationship between King Mongkut and the British schoolmarm Anna Leonowens lacks theatrics. Tennant and his scenarists must take the blame for the shortage of emotional sparks. The leads are left alone together only twice in this two-hour plus epic. First, they quarrel over a tragic court verdict about two illicit lovers not entirely unlike themselves. Second, they hover on the threshold of intimacy during a night encounter on the beach, but propriety compels them to withdraw to their respective corners. Of course, miscegenation and politics create an impasse between them, but these characters seem doomed from the start in spite of their mutual admiration.

Tennant excels at showing what keeps the King and Anna apart from each other. She worships the memory of her dead war hero husband, while he reigns over a volatile frontier kingdom troubled from within and without, sharing his passion and energy with his 23 wives and 42 concubines. Anna never exasperates the King as she did in the first two versions. Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat quarrel, but they never tear each other's clothes off for hot, sweaty sex.

Finally, in the name of political correctness, an Asian actor portrays an Asian ruler. Chow Yun-Fat refuses to imitate his prestigious predecessors in his interpretation of the King. He wears the part well and delivers a performance that may be too subtle for his own good. Moreover, he shuns Yul Brynner's bombastic strut in director Walter Lang's 1956 musical and seems too restrained. Nevertheless, Yun-Fat's King is a sagacious sire. Although he is the absolute monarch, he knows that he can only bend traditions, not break them.

The straight-forward, Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes screenplay resembles an anthology of Hollywood classics, among them: "King Solomon's Mines," "The Robe," "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness," "Doctor Zhivago," and "Out of Africa." Asian action star Chow Yun-Fat maintains an authoritative presence throughout the action. Smoking a Clint Eastwood cheroot, the King stages an audacious stand-off against an enemy army, but Anna backs up his bluff and saves his neck.

The filmmakers err in putting the background in the foreground and vice-versa. Too many peripheral issues displace the love story. "Anna and the King" concerns what you cannot have in life. Tennant fails to milk the plot for its melodrama.

"Anna and the King" won't erase the indelible impression that the 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner made on the minds of many moviegoers. Tennant's spin on this popular yarn about love lost looks spectacular and evokes a moment or two of passion, but he has emphasized politics over passion.

Altogether, despite its sturdy cast, its breathtaking widescreen photography and its scenic Malaysian grandeur, "Anna and the King" amounts to an occasionally touching but tight-lipped tearjerker.

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