The whole thing might have been made for director Andy Tennant: a fairytale love affair
set against an extravagantly exotic backdrop, far enough away from us to have a storybook
quality (it really happened, but in the Far East and in the second half of the 19th
century), yet close enough in theme and emotional relevance to have a real impact.
A former dancer (he was in the chorus of the movie version of Grease) and theatre
student who cut his directorial teeth on television, Tennant came to prominence last year
when he directed Ever After, the updated Cinderella story which was a summer sleeper in
the US and went on to become a hit around the world.
"the sheer scale of the romance"
But it wasn’t so much the storybook side to Anna and the King that attracted
Tennant: it was the sheer scale of the romance. It was the chance to direct a lavish new
(and very different) movie version of a famous true story - the story of how a Victorian
British governess Anna Leonowens went to Siam in 1862 to be tutor to the 58 (67 in some
sources) children of King Mongkut, and how Anna ended up falling in love with a man whom
she discovered to be one of South East Asia’s most enlightened rulers. The Siamese
wins her heart, despite vast cultural differences.
In the new Fox movie, Anna is played by Academy Award-winner Jodie Foster, with top
Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat in a career-making role as the King. It turned out to be an
inspired combination. "I never thought we would reach the casting heights we have on
this film," enthuses Tennant. "Jodie is both intelligent and beautiful. And Chow
Yun-Fat has a charisma you don't see with anyone else. He has a stillness, a presence,
that is accessible. You believe him not only as a monarch, but as someone you might fall
And, above all, adds the director, you believe the two of them when they are together,
which is the essence of any love story. "The real epic films - even when they are set
in the past - work because there is a human element we can relate to, no matter what the
time-frame," he says. "It’s about people falling in love. Love is the
ultimate riddle we never solve. That’s why we keep going to the movies.
"It’s all about subtlety"
"You can see [Jodie and Yun-Fat] thinking and feeling all over the place.
It’s all about subtlety: every scene has a subtext that is being acted and has
nothing to do with what they are saying. It is remarkable to watch."
All this, however, turned out to be an added bonus for Tennant, who was fascinated by
Anna and the King long before the casting was locked in. It was, after all, a chance to do
the kind of film audiences all over the world remember, but which Hollywood - in its
current obsession with special effects and teenage sexuality - hardly seems to make these
"I loved the idea of doing a movie that they really don’t do any more,"
he says, resting between takes in the tropical heat outside Ipoh in the Malaysian province
of Perak, where the biggest movie set since Cleopatra has been built. "It’s a
big sweeping epic that has an enormous landscape and an amazing background. Yet this story
is just about two little people trying to survive within that environment."
Moviegoers could be forgiven for thinking they knew all that there was to know about
the story of Miss Leonowens and King Mongkut. Over 50 years ago, audiences needing a
little relief from the post-war realities of 1946 could have seen Irene Dunne and Rex
Harrison (both somewhat miscast) in Anna and the King of Siam, made from a frothy script
(by Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson) based on a bestselling book by Margaret Landon.
Exactly 10 years later, Fox used all the freshly minted magnificence of CinemaScope 55 to
bring the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I, to the screen. Four years
earlier, the story had been a Broadway hit, and the screen version boasts Deborah Kerr as
Anna - a role that all but defined the rest of her career - with Yul Brynner, who was
launched into stardom by his playing of the King.
"the clash of cultures"
That version’s screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, went back to Leonowen’s own
account of the affair, but any attempt at realism necessarily faded behind a line-up of
songs which have since become standards: ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’, ‘Hello
Young Lovers’, ‘Shall We Dance?’... Tenant has gone back to the original
book, too, in the script he co-wrote with Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Rick Parks (who
also wrote Ever After) and Susan Schilliday. But there are no songs in his version. What
is more, in addition to the epic romance, he was fascinated by the clash of cultures - by
the way in which Anna came from a Victorian culture then very much at its peak - a culture
which was busy colonising huge chunks of the globe - and yet could open up to the very
different but equally powerful culture of Siam. That, he thinks, has a lot to say to
audiences at the turn of the millennium.
"We live in a time when it is difficult to discern morality and principles in our
everyday lives," explains the director. "Even with today’s globalisation,
we run up against different cultures, religions, origins, and we still don’t have it
right. We try to impart our own belief-system on the environment we are in. Anna did just
that but, in the process of trying to change the culture, she changed herself too."
‘East meets West’
"In this film there is a strong sense of ‘East meets West’," adds
producer Lawrence Bender, supervising a movie very different from those - like Reservoir
Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Good Will Hunting - on which he made his name. "Quite often
when people are different, there is mistrust or fear. The way to get along is to accept
people’s differences and embrace them, as Anna and the King did in Siam."
Bringing the story to the screen posed problems every bit as major in their way as
those facing Anna when she first arrived in Siam. The film could not be shot in Thailand,
the modern Siam, for political reasons, but also because the royal palace which is its
setting had been extensively remodelled by Mongkut’s son, Prince Chulalongkorn. He
hired an Italian architect, which was doubtless very progressive of him but involved the
destruction of much of the original oriental finery.
Production designer Luciana Arrighi supervised the biggest movie construction project
in 30 years - something even bigger than the original royal palace, in which the marble
surfaces alone covered 4,000 square metres. Costume designer Jenny Beavan likewise made
hundreds of costumes from scratch, using a team of 20 Malay seamstresses and working her
way through a staggering 15 kilometers of richly coloured fabric.
"I love the elephants," Jodie
But Anna and the King is not about statistics: what was most important of all, says
Tennant, was that the palace and the costumes look as though they belonged - as though the
people who lived in the former and wore the latter did so on an everyday basis. "Our
biggest challenge," he says, "was to create something that didn’t feel like
a soundstage. The palace is one of the stars of the movie: if you have to send Dorothy to
the Wizard of Oz, you have to build Oz. And that is what we have tried to do."
And then there were the elephants, 19 of them, ranging in age from a few months to 57
years old, which is about as old as an elephant gets. "I love the elephants,"
says Foster. "I have to say that’s probably been the best part for me. The
elephants really were the emblem of the film. And they’ve been so co-operative: they
have been the best actors in the movie."
"Elephants like to work on a film set," explains veteran animal trainer Rona
Brown. "They love to be around people. It gives them a sense of duty and
Meanwhile, some idea of the complexity of purpose lying behind the epic beauty of Anna
and the King is provided by the subtly different ways in which Tennant and Foster sum up
what is, for them, the final impact of the film. For the director, it is, when all is said
and done, a great love story. "It’s a romantic drama," he says, "the
story of a woman who changed the heart of a man."
But for Foster, the real key to the movie is as much in the journey made by her
character, Anna, as it is in the effect she has on the King. "It’s a film that
really opens up the Western idea of what the East is," says the star.