Based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens, an English widow who spent six years in the court of Siam as teacher to King Mongkut’s children, the film pays homage to Anna, portrays some of the historical events of the time, and adds more than a soupcon of Hollywood-style romance.
Mrs. Leonowens arrived in Bangkok in 1862, to teach the King’s oldest son, Prince Chulalongkorn. She immediately sets the tone for her relationship with the king when she interrupts him, contradicts and argues with him, and behaves like the perfect stereotype of the pushy English matron of her day. In response, King Mongkut assigns her to teach all his children (68 and counting) and some of his wives and concubines. King Mongkut was the successor to a line of despots, but worked hard to bring Siam into the modern world.
There are conflicts in plenty. The king had promised Mrs. Leonowens a home outside the palace walls, but instead assigns her living quarters inside the palace, and this is a source of contention between the two during the early part of the movie. The action takes place against a backdrop of European colonization in Asia, with Burma a colony of England and Cambodia and Laos and Vietnam colonies of France. Fighting takes place, between Burmese and Siamese troops and between the king and a general turned traitor. King Mongkut overcomes the traitor, with some unasked-for help from Mrs. Leonowens.
As an expat, Mrs. Leonowens strives to maintain the British way of life for her son, Louis. Her furniture, pictures and china tea service are all representative of what might be found in any upper-class English home of the period. Throughout her time in Siam, she wears the clothing of her country, tight, high-necked blouses and hooped skirts. Her waist-length hair is ornately dressed in combinations of upswept curls and braids. Her son is always dressed as a young English boy of his era.
Despite being English to the core, Mrs. Leonowens arrives in Siam with a pair of personal servants she has brought with her from India, and we find out she has lived in Bombay and spent very little of her life actually in England. As far as she is concerned, though, there is no inconsistency. “India is English, Louis,” she tells her son as Beebe and Moonshee raise their eyebrows at one another.
Nevertheless, she takes pains to learn the language and tries to understand Siamese culture. While appalled at some of what she sees, and frequently interfering in ways that prove awkward for the king, she accepts certain aspects of the culture of the country. “Most people do not see the world as it is. They see it as they are,” she wisely observes.
Chow Yun-Fat portrays the king as a believable mixture of ego (“I am king!”) and willingness to learn and change for the sake of his country and his people. Jodie Foster is charming as Anna Leonowens, the perfect mixture of the wide-eyed adventurer and uptight Englishwoman. Tom Felton, whom you probably know better on screen as Draco Malfoy of the Harry Potter series of movies, is already working on his sneer, which is perfectly appropriate to his role.
On the whole, Anna and the King is a delightful movie, more so the less you know about Anna Leonowens’ actual life and attitudes. (Thanks, Hollywood.) If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth watching. There are two other movie versions of Anna Leonowens’ adventures in Siam, Anna and the King of Siam, a 1946 release starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison, and, of course, the musical The King and I with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (1956). And, if you’re interested in Anna herself, her book about her six years in the court of King Mongkut is still available.
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