Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:20 - Released 12/17/99

Jodie Foster is one of my favorite female actors, and she certainly doesn't disappoint with her latest star vehicle, Andy Tennant's Anna And The King. Based on the journals of Anna Leonowens, the British schoolteacher who visited Siam in the 1860s, Anna And The King is a richly accoutered drama full of sweeping vistas and excellent performances. Foster and her supporting cast, led by Tennant's masterful vision, give us a picture of 19th-century Siam (now Thailand) that is unlike the one we saw in The King And I. In this version the problems facing Siam are played out with a respect for realism (if not historical accuracy). Chow Yun-Fat, who plays King Mongkut, is impressive as the wise ruler; far from the ignorant and petty king we're familiar with, he equals Foster's charm for a warm and memorable pairing. And he already knows how to waltz.

All the countries surrounding Siam are under colonial control by the English and French in the 1860s, and King Mongkut sees the need for his heirs to have a knowledge of English and Western cultures. When the recently widowed Anna arrives to educate his considerable progeny, she is wary of the archaic government and sexist traditions. However, though the king refuses to grant her the house she requested off the palace grounds, she stands firm and eventually gains his respect. She commences her lessons for the 60+ children, with her own son Louis (Tom Felton) sitting in, and after a few rough days with the obstinate Prince Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin), begins making headway.

As her confidence grows, so does her affinity for her new home, and this is underscored by a dinner party held by the king, hosting numerous officials from the British government. Their comments about the superiority of British culture over that of the Asian peoples solidifies her allegiance with the Siamese and her disdain for her own arrogant countrymen. That allegiance is put to the test, however, when murderous attacks by the British-controlled Burmese, against merchants who refuse to buy English trade goods, force the king into a military conflict with the British protectorate. After his army is on the move, however, one of his more anti-British generals (Randall Duk Kim) turns traitor. Disgusted with Mongkut's deference toward Western culture, he kills the king's brother (Kay Siu Lim) and plans to overthrow Mongkut and assassinate his heirs.

This film will surely garner numerous Oscar nominations; its cinematography is another beautiful effort by Caleb Deschanel, who has been nominated three times before. The costume design by previous winner Jenny Beavan (A Room With A View) and music by George Fenton (already nominated for a Golden Globe) will also likely get the nod. And the screenplay, by Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes, based on Leonowens's diaries, is thoughtful and dramatic. Foster and Chow are both excellent, of course; their relationship is a touching illustration of growing respect turning to affection and perhaps even something deeper. Also notable is Bai Ling (Red Corner) as Tuptim, the young woman separated from her lover to be one of Mongkut's concubines.

The only problem I have with this film is Tennant's pacing. In an attempt to educate us about the history of Siam, he lets the action get bogged down in the politics and occasionally loses the dramatic momentum. This may be an explanation for the film's overlong 140 minutes. It seems that with some careful pruning, Anna And The King could have been a bit tighter. But this is a minor point, and it doesn't significantly mar this otherwise excellent film. ****½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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