Ric Roman Waugh, 2013
"You ever hear of starting from scratch? This is scratch."
Anna and the King is at least the fourth film adaptation of Margaret Landon’s fact based novel The King and I, and it’s big, expensive and soulless. Though good-looking, its lavish sets, fancy costumes and luscious cinematography can do little to compensate for the emotional wasteland that is Peter Krikes and Steve Meerson’s script. So much money was spent on pretty pictures that they forgot to actually make the movie interesting.
This is Jodie Foster’s first movie since the jaw-droppingly brilliant Contact came out more than two years ago and it isn’t the best choice to show off her acting chops. She’s trapped in the stoic role of Anna Leonowens, the uptight, widowed British schoolteacher who comes to Siam (now Thailand) with her son to instruct the king’s (Chow Yun-Fat) son in the ways of the West (because “the ways of England are the ways of the world). The king likes her so much he puts her in charge of educating the whole royal family (58 kids with 10 more in the way; impressive, no?). The eldest prince is none too happy about this (“Father, have I offended you in some way? Why do you punish me with imperialist schoolteacher?), but soon gets to know Anna and her stern-mother-who-loves-you personality better and comes to like her.
Meanwhile, Siam comes under attack from the neighboring British colony of Burma. The king and his close advisors suspect that this is Britain’s doing which arouses suspicion in Siam, putting Anna in an uncomfortable position. She is not sure what to make of this and seems to herself suspect British involvement in the crisis but works to diffuse the king’s prejudices. He, though self-righteous as ever, can’t help but be influenced by the eloquent Anna and they slowly, quietly, develop affections for each other.
There is a scene in the middle of Anna and the King where one of the king’s younger daughters dies. It’s your classic deathbed scene, with the girl’s mournful eyes staring at her father, who tries only semi-successfully to maintain his composure. Anna then comes in and cries a bit. The sequence was there for a purpose: to evoke a strong emotional response from the viewer. I’m usually a sucker for such scenes and yet this time, I was just sitting there, my emotions untouched. This remains true through all of the movie which remains emotionally barren. We never develop connections to the characters; never given a reason to care.
This ludicrously long epic was directed by Andy Tennant, whose last film was Ever After, one of my favorites of 1998. I do not doubt Tennant’s ability to put together a decent movie, but Anna and the King, aside from being psychologically inept is also technologically deficient. The sets and scenery are gorgeous, but the camerawork does nothing to convey its grandeur. Even Terrence Malick managed to do more with flora and fauna in his otherwise abysmal The Thin Red Line than Tennant can muster from $75 million worth of props and a shoot in Malaysia. We feel like the camera is restricted to its immediate point of view; there are no wide tracking shots or sweeping zooms to fill us with larger-than-life awe.
I liked both Foster and Yun-Fat, who give entertaining if not terribly involving performances in the two lead roles. Foster’s generally stoic persona serves her well here, as she is playing a reserved, formal and rather underdeveloped character. Yun-Fat is especially effective, perfectly conveying the King of Siam’s sangfroid permeated with violent outbursts.
What does Anna and the King in is its inability to involve the viewer in its characters and situations. The cast is great, the director is talented, and the budget is lavish, but this ill-advised remake of the classic Rogers and Hammerstein movie is unable to utilize any of those things to form a compelling whole. This is an emotionless costume epic.
-- Eugene Novikov