It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
King Mongkut of Siam and Anna Leonowens, the English schoolmarm who tries to civilize him, make up one of the most dubious odd couples in pop culture. Here is a man with 23 wives and 42 concubines, who allows one of his women and her lover to be put to death for exchanging a letter, and yet is seen as basically a good-hearted chap. And here is Anna, who spends her days in flirtation with the king, but won't sleep with him because--well, because he isn't white, I guess. Certainly not because he has countless other wives and is a murderer.
Why is she so attracted to the king in the first place? Henry Kissinger has helpfully explained that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and Mongkut has it--in Siam, anyway. Why is he attracted to her? Because she stands up to him and even tells him off. Inside every sadist is a masochist, cringing to taste his own medicine.
The unwholesome undercurrents of the story of Anna and the king of Siam have nagged at me for years, through many ordeals of sitting through the stage and screen versions of "The King And I," which is surely the most cheerless of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals. The story is not intended to be thought about. It is an exotic escapist entertainment for matinee ladies, who can fantasize about sex with that intriguing bald monster and indulge their harem fantasies. There is no reason for any man to ever see the play.
Now here is a straight dramatic version of the material, named "Anna and the King," starring Jodie Foster opposite the Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat. It is long and mostly told in the same flat monotone, but has one enormous advantage over the musical: It does not contain "I Whistle a Happy Tune." The screenplay has other wise improvements on the source material. The king, for example, says "and so on and on" only once, and "et cetera" not at all. And there is only one occasion when he tells Anna her head cannot be higher than his. Productions of the musical belabor this last point so painfully they should be staged in front of one of those police lineups with feet and inches marked on it.