Anna and the King
Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera
Directed by Andy Tennant
Written by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes, based on the diaries by Anna Leonowens
With Chow Yun Fat, Jodie Foster, Bai Ling, Kay Siu Lim, Melissa Campbell, Deanna Yusoff, Syed Alwi, Randall Duk Kim, Keith Chin, Tom Felton
The latest incarnation of this classic tale of an eastern monarch and an English schoolteacher has been banned in Thailand for not portraying King Mongkut as dignified enough and for the extent of influence Anna claimed to have had at the Siamese court. There may be something to the Thai government’s qualms with the historical veracity of Anna and the King -- but not with Chow Yun Fat, who plays the king with a truly regal and stately air.
Regal Chow Yun Fat is a scene-stealer with riveting screen presence; I can’t think of any of my favorite western actors with that kind of charisma. Besides the charisma, Yun-Fat is a great actor; an Oscar nomination is definitely deserved here. He is completely convincing as a king: at times, bemused (his expressive, twinkling eyes giving this away despite a kingly, impassive expression), at other times controlling immense grief and sadness.
The only other three-dimensional character is a concubine in love with a commoner, played by Bai Ling. One has come to expect passionately sincere performances from the beautiful young actress (Red Corner) and, unlike Jodie Foster, she does not disappoint. Most of the other characters are cardboard cutout representations, subservient to the scale of the movie and the physical space. This is not necessarily such a bad thing -- except for the almost caricatured Anna played by Jodie Foster, which brings us to the biggest and perhaps only problem I had with this movie.
I am completely befuddled by two-time Oscar-winner Foster’s stiff and irritating performance. She is one of the most intelligent, talented, and beautiful actors today: one cannot dismiss her performance without trying to figure out why she was so terrible.
Her character -- an imperialistic, high-and-mighty, presumptuous English schoolteacher straight from British India -- might be true to the original, but it still felt jarring every time she made a pronouncement about the superiority, noble intentions, and rightful colonization of the British. If one ignores her irritatingly smug character, one stumbles over her acting. Just as jarring is her strange semi-British accent; in addition, she purses her lips as if being uncomfortable with her accent every time she speaks, which is excruciatingly painful to watch. Perhaps Foster was two steps ahead of us and tried to portray an Englishwoman not really brought up in England but in Bombay, and her style of speech tried to convey the terseness and taut repression of her character -- take your pick. I would like to be charitable and choose the latter explanation.
This movie might have addressed issues of history, progress, slavery, social order, colonization, and spirituality. However, except for social order and allusions to slavery in America, it aspires to nothing greater than a bittersweet romance with some interesting subplots. So perhaps one should not expect more than a mere acknowledgement of the colonial mindset when Anna refers to India proprietarily while her Indian servants exchange an exasperated knowing look.
I saw the musical version long ago -- too long ago to make too many comparisons -- but it was hard to miss some of the nods to the original. For example, the scene of King and Anna dancing is as memorable a scene in this film, although for different reasons, and Yul Brynner’s “Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera” is at one point echoed by Chow Yun Fat saying “And so on, and so on.”
There are a number of interesting sub-plots, including another tragic romance and palace intrigues, although the machinations of court life and politics are occasionally a little hard to follow.
Director Andy Tennant’s other films include romantic fluff like Fools Rush In, but the recent Ever After, which he also co-wrote, shows his interest in the exotic and visually rich material. Oscar-winning production designer Luciana Arrighi and Tennant’s team visited and documented the real royal palace in Bangkok. A priority for Tennant was to ensure authenticity in the depiction of Thai cultures and traditions. Attention to detail resulted in extensive library research and eventually a construction crew of about thirteen hundred workers, including artists and laborers. The sprawling seven-acre set in Malaysia, constructed from scratch, was the largest ever built for a film since Cleopatra.
Academy Award-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan and Arrighi worked on complementary color themes to dress thousands of extras, especially the gorgeously clothed King Mongkut’s 23 wives, 42 concubines, and 58 children. They used mainly Thai fabrics -- nearly ten miles of it! In stark contrast is Anna’s bland Victorian-era wardrobe, appropriate for the financially limited, practical schoolteacher.
So go see the movie for the stunning visuals: gorgeous, sprawling epic sets that Oscar voters love; beautiful, sensitive details; and lush scenery and colors. Try and ignore Anna, concentrate on the King, and you should be fine.