Anna and the King
A movie review by
Linda Lopez McAlister
Anna and the King is now playing in theaters around Tampa Bay. It is
truly an epic film in the style of Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago-- a
huge production shot on location in Malaysia. I never understand how a
director can stage such mammoth shots and crowd scenes, but Andy Tennant and
an army of collaborators have pulled it off nicely.
The story is the familiar one of Anna Leonowens, the widow of a British
army officer who died while serving in India in the 1860s. Left far from
home with a young son to support, she takes a job as tutor to the Crown
Prince of Siam. A gutsy thing for a woman to do at that time, but, as she
says, she really had no choice, so few options were available to her. Anna
Leonowens, as played by Jodie Foster, is a gutsy kind of well bred Victorian
woman. While she is always polite and suitably under control, she has deep
moral convictions that move her to act according to her conscience no matter
what the consequences.
The consequences could be dire in her situation, since Siam was under
the rule of King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat), a supreme ruler who freely
exercises his nearly unlimited power over his subjects, wives, concubines,
and children. But he soon finds out that he cannot exercise it over Mrs.
Leonowens. She is both a foreigner and guest in his country, albeit a paid
guest, as he reminds her. As he says to one of his aides who remarks
disapprovingly that Anna thinks she is the equal of a man, "No," says the
King, "she thinks she is the equal of a king."
King Mongkut is also, however, a man capable of great love and tenderness
for his children while at the same time being threatened by his neighbors
all of whom are under the domination of one European country or another.
His vision and hope is to keep Siam from being colonized by making it into a
modern and progressive nation. Thus not only the Crown Prince but his other
children, too, as well as a few wives, need to learn English, science,
literature, etc. from the new teacher.
This film has been criticized for being too long and slow moving, but
that's the nature of this kind of epic filmmaking. It has been said that
you'd be better off watching "The King and I" because it's peppier and
faster paced. Well, sure it is, it's a Broadway musical.
It is to this film version as a cartoon sketch is to a vast oil painting by
Canaletto that gives a richly detailed picture of people and their
activities as well as showing the broad sweep of the surrounding scenery. I
really loved getting the historical and political context that this film
provides. I'd never thought before about the fact that Siam was the only
Southeast Asian country that escaped colonialism. And it was the vision of
King Mongkut and his son Prince Chulalongkorn who were the enlightened
leaders that made this happen.
It's long, it's interesting, it's beautifully photographed, and the
acting of Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat is right on. Their growing
attachment to one another and their controlled passion bring a palpable
excitement to the screen. Three cheers for Anna.
For the Women's Show this is Linda L˙pez McAlister on Women and Film.
Linda L˙pez McAlister is in the Department of Women's Studies at the
University of South Florida in Tampa, FL.
Copyright 1999. Please do not reproduce without the author's permission