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Thought you knew the story of the British governess who won the heart of the King of Siam? Well think again: Fox’s Anna and the King, starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, opens up an epic new vista on one of the world’s most exotic love affairs, reports NICK RODDICK.

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 for."

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 days.

"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 Foster

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 purpose."

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."

"the journey"

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.

December, 1999

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