How perfect, then, that she is complemented by an actor with equal soul, verve and gravity in Chow Yun-Fat. Long a superstar in his native Hong Kong, and lately a popular import in wild action flicks helmed by John Woo (The Killer, Hard-Boiled), Chow brings an initially daunting yet profoundly compassionate resonance to the role of Siam's King Mongkut, host to Anna and her young fatherless son, Louis (Tom Felton).
This is a rather familiar story, popularized in three screen versions already (twice by Fox, which knows a strong property when it's got one, and once in this year's animated dilution of the musical). It's impossible to think of Leonowens' rich and inspiring (and, some skeptics suggest, cleverly fabricated) diaries without summoning the brilliance of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr crooning Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes (in Kerr's case, with the looped voice of Marni Nixon). For that matter, it's also pretty easy to glance a little further back, beyond Walter Lang's 1956 version, to John Cromwell's straight take with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison in 1946.
There's a vast and elegantly explored theme of "Getting to Know You" in this epic retelling, helmed by director Andy Tennant (Ever After), but don't expect any spontaneous vocalizing. Tennant and his enormous team have instead crafted this tale as a smart, bold, adventurous drama told straight, on a gigantic scale inspired by Doctor Zhivago or, more recently, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi or Cry Freedom. (It's probably no coincidence that Attenborough's composer on those films, George Fenton, provides the swelling, sometimes funky score.) Big this one is: Thousands of extras, countless elephants, lush jungles, a jaw-dropping royal palace, battles, barges, even a monsoon. Yet all these incredible sets and locations prove utterly necessary to balance the vital core of this powerful -- if cautious -- romance.
If you eat food to keep your body alive, perhaps you've run into advertisements for this movie on shopping carts in supermarkets, and this crass blitz may seem to cheapen Anna's significance and scope, but, really, it doesn't. "One cannot plow new fields in Siam overnight," explains the king to Anna. It is 1862, and, despite a looming colonial influence, Siam still maintains its old ways. Anna, who has arrived with the shields of her British principles on maximum, seeks to enlighten the king's 58 children (borne by his 23 wives and 42 concubines, who have 10 more soon to be born) in the ways of the West, where, thanks to abolitionists like Abraham Lincoln (who sends the king a letter later in the film), slavery isn't tolerated anymore. To advance her notions, Anna gives the king's ornery son Prince Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin) a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which the boy initially shies away from simply because it was written by a woman -- who is, to him, lesser than a man. Soon the king politely asks Anna to avoid using the book in her instruction. You can see what the courageous governess is up against.
What makes this film shine, however, is that it's not about taking sides. Both Leonowens and Mongkut have tricky personal issues to work out: He's not much into commitment, not even with his head wife; she's been avoiding the process of living her life since losing her husband two years earlier. When the trappings of their equally rich but incredibly disparate cultures come into play -- and do they ever, as the "British stench" wafts through in the form of Burmese death squads -- Anna and the king become polarized symbols, representing millions, drawn together by forces that will ultimately keep them apart.
Subplots abound in this lengthy and intricate film, including Anna's attachment to one of the king's adorable daughters, Princess Fa-Ying (Melissa Campbell), and the somewhat awkward presence of British arrogance in the form of Lord and Lady Bradley (Geoffrey Palmer and Ann Firbank) and the rather tactless Mycroft Kincaid (Bill Stewart), who lasciviously admires Mongkut's collection of women. There's also a menace brewing in the form of Gen. Alak (Randall Duk Kim). Some of the most poignant work, however, comes from the king's new concubine, Tuptim (Bai Ling), whose devotion to her ex-beau Balat (Sean Ghazi) is monumentally moving.
Adding greatness is the dialogue, which is surprisingly adept and lyrical, often philosophically stirring. Writers Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes, whose earlier collaboration produced Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, have transcribed Leonowens' diaries into a screenplay that often sounds like poetry. When Chulalongkorn asks why his father has chosen to humble him under the ministrations of the governess, Anna responds that the king simply wants what's best for the boy, and at the moment that includes her. When the child asks why, she kindly explains: "Most people do not see the world as it is -- they see it as they are." It's a simple moment, but it reveals much about the locked souls of the teacher and the monarch, who gradually evolve in the light of one another's presence.
Anna and the King is a grand entertainment in the old-fashioned sense, but it's also a valuable -- and easily accessible -- document for our own age, in which cultures bleed into one another with an even more feverish intensity. It's a portrait of courage and hope against incredible odds, summed up perfectly by Foster during a scientific experiment she presents for the children. "The one way to achieve the impossible," she explains to her rapt audience as an egg is sucked by a vacuum into a bottle, "is to change the climate."
Opens Dec. 17.