The tale of a woman, a King, and how they changed each other and a nation.
A lavish, epic tale of mid-19th century romance and drama as the cultures of West and East clash, Anna and the King is a slowly paced, gorgeous production. Though a box-office disappointment, Anna and the King comes off better as a home video experience, particularly with the excellent presentation and extra content of this disc.
In many ways, this is a familiar story, most notably due to the classic musical The King and I (1956) with Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr. Based upon the diaries of Anna Leonowens, a teacher employed by the King of Siam, the original stories have now been generally seen as somewhat exaggerated, sometimes fanciful, and occasionally flat wrong accounts of the period. Still, at least to a worldwide audience, this is a story with substantial romance and dramatic power, which was adapted and revised when it took the form of Anna and the King.
The tale of a courageous woman who sets forth into the heart of an unfamiliar nation and clashes with an equally strong-willed and visionary monarch, Anna and the King paints a broad canvas of culture and geography. There is much to tell, and so it is told, with two strong, complex characters at the center of this intensive production. Who could guess that even this revised tale would fall afoul of long-standing objections?
However, in Thailand they take the history of their monarchy very seriously, and jealously guard against all perceived attacks upon this revered institution. Thus was The King and I banned for its buffoonish treatment of the revered King Mongkut, backed up with severe criminal penalties. The producers of Anna and the King hoped to remedy past errors and film in Thailand with the full cooperation of the Thai authorities. Despite the best of intentions, and many rounds of negotiations over innumerable details, ultimately the Thai authorities refused to grant their permission and similarly banned Anna and the King from their country.
Falling back upon Malaysia and elaborate sets as a stand-in for Thailand and its historic structures, producer Lawrence Bender (Good Will Hunting, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) and director Andy Tennant made a most excellent pitcher of lemonade out of the lemons forced upon them.
Jodie Foster (Contact, Silence of the Lambs, Taxi Driver) and Chow Yun-Fat (The Corruptor, and scores of Hong-Kong action films) are a well-matched pair working near the top of their game. By her own admission, Jodie is a bit of an acting machine, and she does wonders with attitude, glances, and expressions to give Anna Leonowens a sympathetic humanity without ignoring her British arrogance and other less sterling qualities. On the other hand, Chow Yun-Fat carries himself with exquisite poise, steel and seriousness, coolly convincing us of his perfect suitability to play the leading man. Now, neither is perfect. Jodie Foster's British accent is not entirely stable or convincing, and Chow Yun-Fat is not the most expressive of actors, but neither flaw is serious.
As for the other cast members, the talented group of local actors and the British imports hit the right notes both as actors and extras, though perhaps to a native Thai speaker the fact that many of the actors used phonetic pronunciation could be a mild flaw.
The anamorphic video transfer is a handful of nit-picks away from being perfect. This is just the sort of film to showcase the advantages of the greater resolution and color depth of the DVD format. The blizzard of hand-made costumes and the breathtaking scenery of Malaysia (standing in for Thailand) is quite impressive, given the absolutely clean picture, good color saturation, and near total absence of digital enhancement artifacts. The only faults are a smattering of noticeable (but brief) video noise/grain and sharpness that could stand to be cranked up just a notch or two.
The audio is a decent 5.1 mix. Most of the action takes place across the front soundstage, with good channel separation, and the rear surrounds called upon for substantial ambient effects. Your subwoofer modestly supports the action and music, but as you might expect does not get a heavy duty workout. My main complaint is that the dialogue seems to have been mixed down. At my usual listening level, I was straining to catch the soft-spoken, accented dialogue, so that I either had to boost the volume or use subtitles.
Extra content is worthy of the disc's claim to be a special edition. Aside from the decent (cropped 1.85:1 widescreen) theatrical trailer and the fair to very good quality of (1.85:1 widescreen) video "How Can I Not Love You" by the attractive Joy Enriquez, there is a collection of five featurettes ("Advanced Combo," "Production Design," "Featurette," "Costumes," "Elephants") and a TV special, which is basically a sixth featurette. There is a fair amount of typical promotional fluff and a lot of overlap between the featurettes, but they do a good job in showing the scope of the effort that went into constructing the hugely elaborate sets and sewing the innumerable costumes. My favorite is "Elephants," which covers the equally amazing task of marshaling an army of elephants and mahouts (trainers), as well as the ways of keeping them fed and cool in the Malaysian heat.
The collection of deleted scenes are a more worthy inclusion. Menus are nicely animated and musical, with appropriate transitions. Six deleted scenes (Prologue, Epilogue, Noviciation Ceremony, Croquet Game, See the White Elephant and Anna Leaving House) and one extended scene (Rice Fields) are available, but with the surprising bonus that five are anamorphically enhanced (all but the Prologue and Epilogue) and all have commentary by director Andy Tennant. All are interesting, but given how long the film ended up, I can quite agree that scenes had to be trimmed to keep the pace of Anna and the King from a "molasses in winter" fate.
Rounding out the extras is the commentary track with director Andy Tennant. Making Anna and the King was quite the undertaking for someone who started on "The Wonder Years," but in listening to the commentary I was struck by just how much good humor and creative joy Andy Tennant managed to retain despite a grueling climate and various difficulties (drunken actors, natural disasters, and so on!). It's one of the better tracks I have listened to in a while, informative and mildly entertaining without descending into dull pretension, and therefore is a welcome addition.
Facts of the Case
The widow of an English army officer stationed in India, Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster), accepts the offer of King Mongkut of Siam (Chow Yun-Fat) to come and educate his children in the language and ways of the West. Upon her arrival, she finds Siam to be a most unsettling place, different in so many ways from her British heritage and accustomed colonial lifestyle. King Mongkut has much the same reaction to this stranger, a woman with ideas and a freedom of speech that is most unsettling.
Simmering behind the scene are the politics of the day. To the East, French Indochina, and to the west, Burma, a British protectorate, and feeling squeezed in the middle is King Mongkut and Siam. The King's advisors are divided by his vision of a Siam made stronger by a deep understanding of Western knowledge and ways, personified by his importation of Anna Leonowens as governess for his children, yet they are deeply concerned at the mysterious depredations of Burmese assassins. Speculation places blame at the feet of the British, who seek to provoke a war in order to justify an expansion of their empire to include Siam.
Despite their vastly different world-views, King Mongkut and Anna learn much from each other and slowly develop a romantic relationship as they share personal and public tragedies. When an abyss of betrayal and war looms on the horizon, King Mongkut and Anna must fight for their own lives and the future of Siam, and face the insoluble problem of their own feelings.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even in its trimmed theatrical version, Anna and the King is still a complicated, massive story with many sub-plots. The pacing is apropos to a line repeated in the movie, namely that in Siam, everything has its own time. I often found myself wondering where the film was headed, and how long we were going to take to get there. Though this very leisurely pace never quite reached the point where I found it annoying, perhaps a tighter script and some more judicious editing would have been in order.
Also, the desperation, against all odds action-sequence ending feels forced. It certainly helps to inject some needed energy into the slow-moving drama, but at a cost in believability.
Finally, while I know that many people may find the subject tiresome, this "six tooth" style of keepcase with kung-fu DVD death grip makes me wish fondly for an Alpha keepcase.
In considering Anna and the King, whether you appreciate this film depends on your taste for adrenaline. If you desire a lavish production with great attention to detail, beautiful vistas, amazing costumes and fine acting in a historical setting, then this is a film for you. Those interested in a more passionate love affair, or tense, action-filled drama (or who lack the patience to last through the slow meanderings of the film) are likely to be left out in the cold. A rental is strongly recommended, though I would advise caution on a purchase given the high ($30 retail) price.
The Court wishes to express its thanks to 20th Century Fox for its special edition treatment of a film that at least based upon its box office, perhaps did not deserve it. Anna and the King is a quality disc, technically and substantively, and who can ask for more? Case dismissed.
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