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Anna and the King

In a year where moviemaking broke new ground with experimental genre films such as "Three Kings," "American Beauty" and "The Sixth Sense," another version of the story of Anna and the King would seem to have a distinctly been there, done that ring to it.

But director Andy Tennant and crew have managed to produce something completely refreshing: an old-fashioned, epic drama that actually works. Absorbing and thoughtful, full of good humor and emotion, "Anna and the King" is a convincing love story which benefits from the inspired pairing of Academy Award winner Jodie Foster and Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat.

By now, the story should be familiar. Foster takes her turn at playing widowed British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, who comes to Siam (now Thailand) in 1862 to tutor the son of reigning monarch, King Mongkut (Chow). Although they come from disparate cultures, Mongkut grows to admire and even love the Western woman for her steadfast integrity and passion.

Fans of the most well-known version, the 1956 musical "The King and I" starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, will notice an immediate departure. The new version skips the songs and dances and focuses on the dramatic themes of the story. Much of the tension derives from Anna and the king's contrasting social viewpoints, especially her problems with the country's system of slavery and concubines. At the same time, she can't help but notice that Mongkut is a compassionate leader who seeks a balance between tradition and progress.

As played by Chow, the king is a strong and worthy ruler every bit as charismatic and winning as Brynner's earlier incarnation. He has a subtle, easy chemistry with Foster that develops naturally within the story. For those used to Chow simply blazing away with six-shooters in a John Woo actioner, there's much more to be revealed in this breakthrough, leading man performance.

Foster, handling her English accent and character with grace and sophistication, gives yet another convincing, commanding performance. She's a believable match as the king's equal in intellect and wit, and an able tutor to her 10-year-old son (Tom Felton) and Prince Chulalongkorn (Keith Chin).

Tennant and screenwriter Steve Meerson round out the 2 1/2-hour running time with several narrative threads. An escalating conflict between Siam and neighboring Burma causes problems between the king and England (which oversees the territory) and puts the schoolteacher in a tenuous position. Anna's relationship to him is further strained by her friendship with a concubine who breaks the law to be with her true love.

The story, based on the real Anna Leonowens' accounts of her experiences, has been scrutinized over the years for its factual inaccuracies. As a matter of history, dramatic license has been taken to expand the teacher's connection to the king and her previous marriage to a British soldier (in reality, her deceased spouse was a clerk).

"Anna and the King" works better as epic entertainment than as an epic retelling of true events. Even with its important issues of social, political and cultural differences, the limits of the script tend to somewhat diminish its effect over the course of its lengthy running time. But the performances and storytelling help keep it emotionally grounded and gratifying.

Besides the acting, the film features amazing cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, with frequent, awesome shots of foreign landscapes (with Malaysia standing in for Siam) and landmarks that convey the beauty of the culture and its people. The splendor of the filming, costume and production design underscores the emotions of the characters. The music by George Fenton, grand, romantic and sweeping, is the perfect accompaniment.

Films have been complimented for many things throughout 1999. "Anna and the King" is the first that qualifies for classic status in the old sense of the word. That's not bad, when a film can accomplish, rather than mimic, what its predecessors set out to do. Sparkling with rich filmmaking and exquisite performances, "Anna and the King" is another worthy, memorable entertainment for the ages.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some intense violent sequences.

"Anna and the King"

Chow Yun-Fat: King Mongkut

Jodie Foster: Anna Leonowens

Bai Ling: Tuptim

Tom Felton: Louis

Syed Alwi: The Fralahome

A 20th Century Fox presentation. Director Andy Tennant. Screenplay Steve Meerson and Peter Krikes. Diaries Anna Leonowens. Producers Lawrence Bender and Ed Elbert. Director of photography Caleb Deschanel. Editor Roger Bondelli. Music George Fenton. Production designer Luciana Arrighi. Costume designers Jenny Beavan and Jenny Beavan. Art directors Paul Ghirardani and 'Lek' Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat. Set decorator Ian Whittaker. Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes.