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ANNA AND THE KING

by: Scott Renshaw

For more than forty years -- certainly since the 1956 film version of The King and I -- Yul Brynner has been the King of Siam, and the King of Siam has been Yul Brynner. Actors often define roles, and roles often define actors (the latter much to the actors' chagrin), but rarely as a role/actor identification been so strong, and so reciprocal. A Yul Brynner impression without the words "puzzlement" or "et cetera" just isn't a Yul Brynner impression; a King of Siam without a bald dome just isn't the King of Siam.

Anna and the King may not be Rodgers and Hammerstein, but Chow Yun-Fat still faced a vexing challenge: re-defining a part so distinctly connected to one man. It is the authoritative grace with which Chow pulls off that feat that makes Anna and the King such an unexpected pleasure. The familiar story is based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster), a Victorian era Englishwoman who accepts a unique employment opportunity. A widow with a 10-year-old son (Tom Felton), Anna travels to Siam to serve as tutor for the children of King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat), the country's revered monarch. Though Anna bristles at some of Mongkut's customs, she grows eventually to respect his commitment to progress and learning. But the meeting of East and West becomes political as well as personal, as Siam faces threats from the Eurpoean-colonized nations surrounding it.

Since the story is ultimately an epic romance, nothing is more important to Anna and the King's success than the connection between its principal characters. Foster, not surprisingly, is quite good as Anna, striking an effective balance between her edgy independence and prolonged mourning over her husband. Her tough-love teacher routine with Mongkut's eldest son Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin) is a bit overly familiar, but she comes thoroughly to life when she's on screen with the King. Chow then proceeds to do everything one could possibly ask of an actor. When necessary, he is convincingly aloof and regal, looking and behaving every bit the stern ruler. He also shows a wonderfully light touch, lending a devilish smile to his jabs at Anna's strong will. Even the more overtly emotional scenes -- clearly meant to pound home the heaviness of the head that wears the crown -- are nicely under-played. Those familiar with Chow primarily as an action star should take note: his versatility keeps the romantic angle in Anna and the King fresh and convincing.

He's not quite so lucky with the political angle. Much of the film's second half is dedicated to an attempted overthrow of Mongkut by unknown forces, leading to battle scenes and narrow escapes. The double-dealings are pretty conventional stuff, leading to an exploding bridge climax that feels like it belongs in an entirely different film (one directed by Jan De Bont, perhaps). In fact, Anna and the King stumbles whenever director Andy Tennant draws too much attention either to finger-wagging at cultural imperialism (a blowsy British merchant insulting Mongkut at a dinner party) or to his own direction (an operatically staged beheading). Even in a film that runs two and a half hours, there's just not enough time to spend away from its complicated central relationship.

Fortunately, Anna and the King is ultimately redeemed by its splendor. No, not the splendor of Luciana Arrighi's production design or Caleb Deschanel's cinematography, though both pieces of work are exceptional. It's the splendor of Chow Yun-Fat that carries Anna and the King through its occasional stretches of anachronistic anti-colonial posturing and trite palace intrigue. Creating the image of a king is a difficult enough task; re-creating a king who is already an icon would seem to be thankless. Chow is nothing less than a presence that takes over Anna and the King -- with his humor, his poise, his majesty ... et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

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