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. It's impossible to think of Leonowens's rich and inspiring diaries without summoning the brilliance of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr crooning Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes. 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. 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 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, slavery isn't tolerated anymore.
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 there's also a menace brewing in the form of General 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's diaries into a screenplay that often sounds like poetry.
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."