Published December 1, 1999
At the beginning of Anna and the King, directed by Andy Tennant and adapted by Steve Meerson from The English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Leonowens (1870), Mrs Leonowens (Jodie Foster), a widow, explains to her young son Louis (Tom Felton) why she has come to Siam as tutor to the son of that nation’s monarch, King Mangkut (Chow Yun Fat). “The ways of England are the ways of the world. He’s a wise man to recognize that,” she says of the King. Later, after Anna has come to know and understand if not always to approve of the strange ways of the Thai court and people, she hears the same words on the lips of an arrogant English lady, one of a collection of stock figures that could have stepped out of any period film of the last 40 years. “The ways of England are the ways of the world,” says this ugly imperialist, and Anna replies: “They are the ways of one world. . .”
Of course we understand why she has to be converted to multiculturalism in order to retain our sympathy in this day and age, just as we understand why the British imperialists must all be stupid and boorish and unsympathetic (lucky for the late Mr. Leonowens, a British soldier in India, that he didn’t survive to be put into Mr Tennant’s picture!), but it involves the film in a fatal self-contradiction—between, that is, an up-to-date sensitivity about cultural differences and the residue of its Victorian and imperial confidence in the superiority of Western ways. The film-makers never really attempt to resolve this contradiction, and are content to put the two things side-by-side without comment: their fondness for the picturesque and charming Thais and their prissiness, well beyond the Victorian one suspects, about many of the more barbaric Thai customs.
When the king patiently explains to Anna why her intervention on behalf of a condemned woman has made it impossible for him to show mercy lest he lose face, she fires back at him “How many more people must die so that you will not lose face?” Those are words that still resonate in post-Vietnam America, but they simply would not have occurred to a Victorian, not even, I think, to a Victorian lady. Saving face is not a trivial thing among those who wield power and authority, East or West, and Mrs Leonowens’s remonstration sounds not like the English protest against the oriental so much as the present’s protest against the past. It also comes to us as just a part of the thin-faced Miss Foster’s continual hectoring and nagging, which would have provoked a normal man, finding himself in the king’s position as supreme lord of the universe, to have instantly had her put to death.
Nor is her irritating political correctness the only obtrusive anachronism. Not only the supposedly civilized Englishwoman but the supposedly exotic Thai king break into something approaching the unmistakable therapy-speak of our own time about “moving on” after the death of poor Mr Leonowens. Likewise, on her first thrusting herself on the king’s notice after he has kept her waiting for some weeks, Anna says, “I appreciate that you have issues of great importance”—a sentence inconceivable before about the mid-1970s here confidently pronounced in what purport to be the 1860s. To the king, his only important issue would have been his children—who are here shown singing to him “A Bicycle Built for Two” at least two decades before anything called a bicycle existed.
In such a context, it is hardly surprising that the climax of the film is a ridiculous scene in which a rebellion by a disgruntled royal relation (Randall Duk Kim) in alliance with some hired thugs from British Burma is crushed by the quick thinking of Mrs Leonowens, off screen, who frightens off the credulous Asiatics with a few fireworks and a bugle call. Here, Hollywood’s brand of feminism trumps even Hollywood’s brand of racial sensitivity. No helpless maiden is our Jodie, waiting to be rescued by a masterful king! Her sturdy feminist independence hardly even makes her look out of place in this film’s confusing hodgepodge of the period and the contemporary. But it will hardly make even feminists want to see it, I fear.