Macho Majesty

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Sumptuously shot and simmeringly sexy, Anna and the King looks and feels like one long celluloid champagne moment. It's in fine company, too, filmed on the largest set created since the 1963 Burton-Taylor blockbuster Cleopatra.It's the story of Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) a British teacher who travels with her son to the unknown exotica of Siam to teach King Mongkut's (Chow Yun-fat) 58 children. Nobody's quite certain of the veracity of much that Leonowens chronicled, except that she was spawned in a Victorian age when a potter round the lawn was enough to induce headaches in many of her ilk; as a result, her own geographical and mental journey makes for inspiring stuff.

The film has sparked controversy in depicting Leonowens as a woman who shaped the course of Thailand's history and sowed its first buds of modernity. Twentieth Century Fox is still in talks with Thailand as to when and if the picture will show there. (The King and I starring Yul Brynner is banned there because the Thai government believes the film disrespectful.) How mighty or meek Leonowens' influence is impossible to know, but director Andy Tennant treats a deal of it as fabulous, much in the style of his last movie, Ever After.

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Cultural clashes provide the spark and the humor is played high. Anna's impertinence, obduracy and imperial bearing first trouble Mongkut and his entourage. He implores her to stay at his own palace; she sternly objects and wants her own place. He gradually softens and she takes to Siam's ways that beforehand she had found just a tad primitive.

More British than a bulldog, Foster is jolly good and ever gorgeous. She clips her words, apslootelys her intonation, fusses appropriately and won't take no for an answer. Would that she weren't bound by humble Victorian garb, she'd be wearing the trousers. Good God, she even looks British.

Yun-fat as Mongkut, reenacting Yul Brynner's 1956 role, is sublime. He pulls like a plate of oysters. His macho majesty truffles through every scene. Evidently it works its way on Leonowens too and the chemistry between them is raw-raging naked. Yun-fat articulates better than he ever did in The Replacement Killers, and the words Bond, James Bond, should one day be his.

The film should have been half an hour shorter. It all gets too specious in the last half-hour with some minor explosions, military betrayal, unnecessary efforts to push a romance that's great to watch but never gets consummated anyway and Yun-fat an opportunity to do his party-piece Hong Kong toothpick routine, but here with a cigar.

It ain't a historical documentary and never was meant to be, but Anna showcases two great actors in their prime. Do what Cleopatra did: balm in the asses' milk.