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The latest reworking of "The King and I" is an amiable mishmash meant to entertain, not challenge. 

Hollywood Hodgepodge

The talented Jodie Foster does her best to bring a contemporary edge to her well-known role of 19th-century schoolteacher/governess Anna Leonowens in "Anna and the King." But her talented efforts are swaddled this holiday season in a schmaltzy, overly conscious attempt at old-fashioned, epic family fare. Although I applaud the attempt — families are usually the last group Hollywood aims to please — I can't wholeheartedly embrace the result.

When it comes to remakes, particularly remakes of extremely well-known stories, I want to see something fresh, something challenging. Why bother to remake a movie if you've nothing new to say? Now that I've vented, let me add that I did enjoy "Anna and the King." On one level, that enjoyment was immense. Director Andy Tennant has created a sweeping spectacle that uses a broad, big-screen approach to storytelling that is no longer in favor. "Anna and the King" is something to behold, an eye-popping bit of filmmaking that features what appears to be a cast of thousands awash in spectacular color. There are grand entrances, imperial opulence, fiery battles and universal emotions. One of the best things this remake has going for it, besides Foster's valiant effort, is its large cast of Asian actors. As King Mongkut, Chow Yun-Fat more than holds his own against Foster's talents as well as the monumental tides of change threatening his character's kingdom.

Framed by a brief narration from the King's eldest son, the movie begins with the arrival of Anna and her son, Louis (Tom Felton), in Siam. The year is 1862, and the newly widowed Anna is about to come crashing into culture shock. While impatiently waiting for the King to see her, Anna wanders the city, taking us along as she encounters the pageantry and poverty of this new world. Through her Victorian prim and proper eyes, we get to see the crowded marketplace, the lush countryside and the rich beauty of the place. The differences between herself and these people is evident at every turn, but no more so than when she realizes that the King's children, whom she is to educate, number 58.

Much of the movie's more serious, adult themes are presented from a child's perspective, invoking a "cuteness" about them instead of anything remotely provocative. But this approach is a double-edged sword. While it ensures that "Anna and the King" will be embraced as family entertainment, it also ties the director's hands when he tries to get more emotional or dramatic resonance out of the cultural divide that keeps Anna and the King apart once they become romantically interested in each other.

For the die-hard romantics out there, let me tell you that it takes almost an hour before Anna and the King exchange their first meaningful glance. From then on, romantic interludes are inserted periodically, usually with Anna and King Mongkut finding some reason to dance cheek-to-cheek. But their romance is just one part of the personal journey which the staid, Victorian Anna travels. As the movie progresses, we see how Anna and Siam are changing each other, and mostly for the better.

Foster seems to move effortlessly in her period hoop skirts, commanding the screen with her usual grace and talent. Even her attempt at an English accent is a respectable, if not perfect one. More importantly, she and Chow Yun-Fat share an engaging on-screen chemistry.

Although the movie enjoys an unhurried, deliberate pacing, it fits the emotional undercurrents the two leads are battling. But like so many recent films, Tennant just doesn't know how to end it. So he opts for an epic confrontation. Although this climax certainly looks good — fiery explosions and all — it undermines the more serious political themes explored and explained in the first part of the film. As in some cheap mystery, those earlier, more valiant political notes were mere red herrings, setting the stage for this disappointing though spectacular resolution. But the contrived silliness of its ending doesn't completely undermine what's gone before. For three-fourths of its lengthy running time, "Anna and the King" entertains on an old-fashioned, epic scale.

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