Watching ”Anna and the King,” it’s easy to see what inspired Jodie Foster to want to star in a retelling of the story of Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam – two characters from such vastly different universes that their straitlaced flirtatiousness could almost be a parody of the screwball-comedy mating dance. Foster has never been particularly drawn to romantic roles, but here, speaking in a clipped British accent, her small-boned beauty swathed – at times, buried – in lush Victorian finery, she spars nimbly with the outrageously charismatic Chow Yun-Fat, who plays the King as a tender, if lordly, matinee idol.
Foster seems to be working hard to swoon and to hold on to her dignity at the same time. To a degree, she succeeds. The scene in which “Anna and the King” twirl across the ballroom floor, scandalizing a diplomatic dinner as they gaze into each other’s eyes, hits just the right note of refined desire. Yet “Anna and the King” isn’t structured to bring this famous cross-cultural attraction to a sumptuous romantic payoff. Stuffed with period detail and deep-dish political intrigue, as if it were trying to be a prestige American version of “The Last Emperor,” the movie is intelligent, vividly shot, and weirdly remote. It’s a painstakingly correct update of what is, let’s face it, one of the least culturally correct love stories ever to be mythologized by Hollywood.
In “The King and I,” Yul Brynner’s statuesque monarch, with his staccato brusqueness and shockingly virile chrome dome, was a stern barbarian tamed by (Western) love, as embodied by Deborah Kerr. In “Anna and the King,” the two title characters don’t quite fall in love; they fall into deep mutual respect, a state that, for the audience, at least, proves deeply unsatisfying. We need to feel the passion simmering beneath Anna’s feisty schoolmarm facade, but Foster, as always, acts from the head more easily than the heart. By the end, the King, with Anna’s help, has stanched a military invasion and thrown off the shackles of colonialism. For all I know, that gets closer to the real story, so forgive me if I prefer the fake one.