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In 1862, young English widow Anna Owens accepts the job of teaching the royal children of Siam. On her arrival in Bangkok, culture clash is immediate. The king respects Anna for standing up to him, though this appalls his courtiers. In due course, she becomes the king's confidant and diplomatic advisor; their relationship endures through many trials. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Like the similar film Anna and the King (1999), this film was banned in Thailand because of what the Thai government said were historical inaccuracies about the King of Siam. See more »
When the King is dying the paper is not under his pillow in one scene and then magically it is there when he takes it out to be read. See more »
[Anna, thinking the king is a barbarian, is about to leave. The Kralahome has had her brought to his office at night to reason with her. She is outraged]
How dare you treat me in this manner. I demand an explanation, and I warn you...
Be quiet, sir.
...that I'm a British subject.
That is nor reason you are safe. I could have you killed if that would serve my purpose. Such things are simple here.
[Walks across room]
Sir, did you enjoy your triumph about your house? Because you shall now ...
[...] See more »
From the very start, we follow this story of civilization's collision of traditions from the point of view of a visiting English widow. From the very first scene, she is significantly stunned and incensed at the feudal mores of Siam when she disembarks there in 1862 to educate the king's clan of children, and mulishly declines to grovel before him and proceeds to spend several years in hot-cold teetering with him. This is actually a moving and ultimately very poignant story not because of its interest in the discord between the Imperialist Victorian ideology with the autocratic regime of Siam's King, though it does produce a handful of interesting, even funny scenes. It's because of the interpersonal attachments, deteriorations and healing of wounds by the extraordinarily moving triage of performances by Irene Dunne, Rex Harrison and Lee J. Cobb.
Something we face when watching old movies is the reflection of ideas and attitudes of a time in our history not very far back at all. And some of these reflections are more socially or institutionally offensive than others, some not at all, some charming. Anna and the King of Siam is a matter of judging datedness against dramatic effectiveness, cultural attitudes against a screenplay based on personal accounts, mainly, beautiful performances against crude, exclusionary portrayals of Asians by actors in yellowface.
Rex Harrison and Lee J. Cobb are given artificially slanted features and deep synthetic tans with make-up as the king of Siam and his deeply loyal and deferential Prime Minister. To modern eyes, this is immediately a difficult thing to accept. But the effectiveness of their characterizations I attribute as a testament to the performances of those two actors, in the face of how difficult it is to accept the mob-connected union boss on the Waterfront in a turban and no pants. And yet by the end, they have made us forget about them as white movie stars and genuinely begin to sympathize with them acutely as two men of cast-iron codes of values that nevertheless their humanity will always challenge.
It's difficult to judge the movie's cultural attitudes against the true elements of the story without reaching outside of the movie itself, what's on the screen. In terms of the four sides of the screen while Anna and the King of Siam plays on it, I see a much more immediate issue with judging the movie's theatrical datedness against its dramatic effectiveness. And either way, it is indeed dramatically effective. This sort of subjective experience is what makes old movies important to preserve: They're going to keep on meaning different things to different people till the end of time.
Now if I'll get to the point, the reason for this film's surprisingly intense poignancy is, as I say, moving characterizations by three great performers. One of them is in every single scene, and that's Irene Dunne, playing Anna the governess from England, who brings her son with her. One of the most palpable, touching things of all I've ever seen this amazing actress do is, after building a character whose cast-iron code of morality and decorum matches both said Siamese white men combined, revealing not merely a maternal instinct, but a maternal need. There comes a point in the story where her need for a son must be supplanted. She and the young boy in the scene are so tender together, only a lack of a pulse could prevent tears.
Dunne, as sublimely classy as she ever was, holds her bonneted head high, displays sharpness with attractive reserve and ultimately releases sore, poignant tears. Her lady is on a plain with some that Greer Garson has played. The dignified and glorious woman, an ever-admired character in cinema and invariably a specific preference for admirers of Irene Dunne, is paid tribute in the customary luxurious way, but not without a raw bone of excruciating humanity and an enormously dramatic transformative arc.
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