The ways of England are the ways of the world, the wise man knows that," British-born schoolteacher Anna (Jodie Foster) declares upon her 1862 arrival in Siam at the start of "Anna and the King," an ambitious but only modestly entertaining romance/comedy/adventure yarn from "Ever After" director Andy Tennant.
The remainder of the long-winded movie, based on the diaries of Anna Leonowens, seems devoted to ridding the prim and proper foreigner of her smug superiority. That's an educational process achieved through her friendship and flirtation with handsome King Mongkut (Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat), a ruler similarly assured of his culture's edge over the rest of the world.
Will the two strong-minded strangers eventually negotiate a meeting of minds and a shared tugging at hearts? Even those who haven't seen the many other versions of this story -- like the 1946 black-and-white movie, the Broadway play or the 1956 movie musical starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner -- will be able to figure out the foregone conclusion. Aside from the gorgeous vistas of mountains, rain forests and rivers (shot in Malaysia), and a few scenes of harsh brutality, there aren't many surprises in "Anna and the King." It's that kind of movie: You can spot the plot contours from a mile away.
Anna and her young son Louis (Tom Felton) have traveled to Siam from India in a continuing effort to recover from the loss of her husband, a military officer who gave his life for his country. The culture shock is immediate and unsettling, as the widow comes face-to-face with a ruler attached to 23 wives, 42 concubines and nearly 60 offspring, and a nation of subjects who treat the king as a deity.
Our heroine, quaintly addressed as "sir" due to her new acquaintances' belief that leadership positions should not be held by women, nevertheless strikes a stubborn chord, breaking with protocol by insisting that she see her new employer immediately and demanding that he follow through on his agreement to provide a house outside the walls of the royal compound.
The outsider, assigned to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to the king's sons and daughters, each one of whom is a potential successor to the throne, soon softens her stance. Maybe it's the twinkle in the eyes of the baby-faced king, his amusing repartee or his ability to lead in a waltz around the ballroom. Whatever the cause, Anna is soon enough defending the Siamese people at an elegant dinner with foreign dignitaries.
"Anna and the King," although consumed by the story of the platonic relationship between its title characters, isn't all unlikely romance. The ruler, during one tear-jerking scene, demonstrates his humanity in the face of a particularly wrenching loss. And he shows off his bravery in the course of a military showdown with a formerly loyal, particularly bloodthirsty adviser. Even Anna and her young charges play a key role in defeating the marauders.
The king's multiple charms to the contrary, Siam isn't about to be turned into the paradise of Anna's dreams. Despite her connections, she's unable to halt an execution that seems senseless. And her would-be beau isn't quite ready to set free the country's slaves: He's troubled by his son's interest in the classic Harriet Beecher Stowe anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, introduced to the kids by Anna.
Neither Anna nor the king is quite converted to each other's way of thinking about the big issues, but they don't seem quite troubled by that fact. Instead, they settle on a sort of truce, an agreement to disagree in light of their mutual affection. In some sense this stance makes for a less-than-satisfying narrative arc, although this expensive-looking production likely boasts more than enough romance, action and exotic appeal to make a dent in the holiday-movie competition.