Anna and the King
A movie review by
Linda Lopez McAlister

Anna and the King is now playing in theaters around Tampa Bay. It is truly an epic film in the style of Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago-- a huge production shot on location in Malaysia. I never understand how a director can stage such mammoth shots and crowd scenes, but Andy Tennant and an army of collaborators have pulled it off nicely.

The story is the familiar one of Anna Leonowens, the widow of a British army officer who died while serving in India in the 1860s. Left far from home with a young son to support, she takes a job as tutor to the Crown Prince of Siam. A gutsy thing for a woman to do at that time, but, as she says, she really had no choice, so few options were available to her. Anna Leonowens, as played by Jodie Foster, is a gutsy kind of well bred Victorian woman. While she is always polite and suitably under control, she has deep moral convictions that move her to act according to her conscience no matter what the consequences.

The consequences could be dire in her situation, since Siam was under the rule of King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat), a supreme ruler who freely exercises his nearly unlimited power over his subjects, wives, concubines, and children. But he soon finds out that he cannot exercise it over Mrs. Leonowens. She is both a foreigner and guest in his country, albeit a paid guest, as he reminds her. As he says to one of his aides who remarks disapprovingly that Anna thinks she is the equal of a man, "No," says the King, "she thinks she is the equal of a king."

King Mongkut is also, however, a man capable of great love and tenderness for his children while at the same time being threatened by his neighbors all of whom are under the domination of one European country or another. His vision and hope is to keep Siam from being colonized by making it into a modern and progressive nation. Thus not only the Crown Prince but his other children, too, as well as a few wives, need to learn English, science, literature, etc. from the new teacher.

This film has been criticized for being too long and slow moving, but that's the nature of this kind of epic filmmaking. It has been said that you'd be better off watching "The King and I" because it's peppier and faster paced. Well, sure it is, it's a Broadway musical. It is to this film version as a cartoon sketch is to a vast oil painting by Canaletto that gives a richly detailed picture of people and their activities as well as showing the broad sweep of the surrounding scenery. I really loved getting the historical and political context that this film provides. I'd never thought before about the fact that Siam was the only Southeast Asian country that escaped colonialism. And it was the vision of King Mongkut and his son Prince Chulalongkorn who were the enlightened leaders that made this happen. It's long, it's interesting, it's beautifully photographed, and the acting of Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat is right on. Their growing attachment to one another and their controlled passion bring a palpable excitement to the screen. Three cheers for Anna.

For the Women's Show this is Linda L˙pez McAlister on Women and Film.

Linda L˙pez McAlister is in the Department of Women's Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL. Copyright 1999. Please do not reproduce without the author's permission