This is the fourth movie version — and the second this year — of the story of Anna Leonowens, brought to Siam in 1864 by King Monghut to teach his children. Anna and the King end up teaching each other a few things, too.
Of course, the best-remembered is the classic with Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, and the unforgettable songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This version has spectacle to spare, but no “Getting to Know You,” no “Whistle a Happy Tune,” no genuine connection between the two leads (though we are supposed to believe that they are in love with one another), and a script that teeters between stolid and awful.
Jody Foster plays Anna, a widowed Englishwoman who lived most of her life in India. The king hires her because he wants his children to learn more about the world outside of Siam. She respects his culture, but she is appalled by the cruel treatment of bonded servants and urges him to make changes. The king is very progressive in some ways. He respects her independent spirit and values her counsel, but he forbids her to talk to her students about that issue.
Siam is independent, but bounded by colonies of France and England, and vulnerable. Anna aids the King in persuading the English that Siam is stable and “civilized.” And when the King and his children are in danger, Anna provides support.
It’s best to watch this movie with your eyes more than your ears. It is a visual treat. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“The Black Stallion”) creates stunning images of splendor. But the dialogue is dreadful and the plot does not hold together, especially in a bizarre Mulan-style rescue. Worst of all is the all-but-loony way that the two leads, both playing highly principled people deeply aware of their responsibilities linger over a goodbye when the bad guys are charging, dance romantically in the middle of a state dinner, and generally act like Archie and Veronica at the malt shop.
Parents should know that the movie has some very intense violence, including battle scenes, bloody beatings, and non-graphic but very tense beheadings. Dead bodies hang from a tree and soldiers are poisoned. There is a very sad death of a child. There are references to the king’s many wives and concubines and one reluctant concubine is shown being prepared for her first night with him, and being reassured that he is a generous lover. The king smokes cigars and the boys try one.
As with the earlier, better, versions (including another non-musical version with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison), topics for discussion include cultural diversity and how we distinguish between fundamental truths and cultural differences, the challenges of power (for example, the constant threats from those who want to seize it), and the importance of surrounding ourselves with people who tell us the truth, even when it is hard to hear.