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Review by Jay Rittenberg

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Directed by: Andy Tennant
Written by: Peter Krikes and Steve Meerson
Starring: Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat, Bai Ling, Tom Felton, and Keith Chin

A friend of mine told me that we have in Anna and the King is a splendid and satisfying romance - without the romance. She went on to say that she saw this sorely overlooked 20th Century Fox release (now available on home video) more than once. I can safely assume that the first time was for the story and acting, and repeat viewings were to capture all of the visual delights the film has to offer (which anyone will have a hard time totally absorbing the first time around).

A musical and several films have told this story. The first cinematic interpretation of the life of Anna Leonowens (Anna and the King of Siam starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne) hit us back in 1946. Ten years later came the popular The King and I (the movie version of the Rogers & Hammerstein musical), a showcase for Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Warner Brothers even released an animated version of this story in 1999.

In brief, this popular story of stage and screen follows Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster), a widowed British teacher (and single parent), as she travels to Siam in 1862 with her son Louis (Tom Felton). Anna has accepted a job to teach King Mongkut's eldest son, Prince Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin), the ways of the rest of the world. She needs the paycheck, but she realizes that this may turn out to be the hardest job and biggest challenge she's had yet. Of course, not everything is to her liking in this very foreign place, and she can't just go and have a chit chat with the king whenever she wants. She has to follow protocol and see him whenever he gets around to it. Not only that, but the governess learns that she has picked up another 50-plus students as the king wants all of his children to be taught instead of just the eldest son. The stage is set for a battle of wills between these two stubborn people. They don't see eye-to-eye at the start, but with the passing of time, both Anna and the king begin to respect and trust one another, teach each other valuable life lessons, and develop a lovin regard for each other.

Anna and the King is not without its flaws. At nearly 2 and 1/2 hours in length, it's a little too long, slow in some parts, and has a Hollywood climax you might find a bit distracting. In addition, the use of the diaries notwithstanding, it can be hard to guage the accuracy of this film - in interviews, even, Tennant and Chow Yun Fat tell different stories of the making of the film. The film may also feel too politically correct for some tastes.

There's still plenty to like about this film. Its look, feel, and acting are all worth the price of admission. It's a solid choice for the whole family and for those craving a good story about love, honor, and respect. In addition, those craving a lush epic minus the typical song and dance numbers will be very pleased. Although the two leads do, at one time, hit the dance floor for a waltz, they do not test our patience by trying to hit a high note.

Anna and the King works because of its beautiful look and feel, and the acting and chemistry of Yun-Fat and Foster. The film will easily remind you of the kind of pictures that Hollywood used to make - those breathtaking epics that didn't spare a thing on visuals. This is the kind of period piece that you hope for: the costumes, the set designs, the colors, and Caleb Deschanel's cinematography, along with an inventive musical score, make you feel like you're actually there and that you belong.

The visuals of this film will delight you, and its acting will also put a smile on your face. I have heard some complaints of the casting decision of Foster as the film's lead and her struggles with her accent. Sure, she may not have been the first top-quality actress to have been considered for the role, but Foster did a solid job portraying the headstrong educator. It may not have been her best work to date, but she certainly did not disappoint. Her fans should be pleased as usual.

As for her costar, I had my doubts and I am so pleased that he proved me dead wrong. I mean here is one of the top Asian action imports American audiences have seen. Chow Yun Fat is practically part and parcel of Woo's signature style, two-fisted shooting and all. Please note that there's no guns, no tooth picks, and no disappointments going on in this current film. Fat gives us a majestic, strong, and believable king who could do as much teaching as the person he hired to educate his offspring. Kudos also must go to Bai Ling (as Tuptim), who gave us a strong supporting performance as the king's newest concubine who plays an intricate part of the developing story.

Anna and the King is not a perfect film, but you have to look at it for what it is: a romance, first and foremost. You will believe the chemistry between the film's two stars and actually feel the love their characters had for one another. Many things suit this film well, but none as much as the interplay between the two people you came to see. Anna and the King is a touching journey to a far away place that will surely leave a smile on your face.

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