1862. An English governess travels to Siam to educate the children of the royal household, but clashes with their father the king.
The King And I with no tunes, you say? Why, that's like The Sound Of Music with no Alps. Well, yes and no. Andy Tennant's take on the true(ish) story of Anna Leonowens (Foster), a British schoolteacher who journeys to Siam in 1862 to tutor the vast family of its ruler, certainly stints on the singalong factor. But the epic sweep of this opulent, often breathtaking film allows him to augment the unconventional romance with a taut political intrigue and a surprisingly frank examination of cultural issues.
Anyone familiar with the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical - which, let's face it, is anyone who has endured an Easter Bank Holiday somewhere in the northern hemisphere - will already be familiar with the bare bones of the plot: the schoolmarm and the king constantly knock heads over his brutal ways while their relationship blossoms into one of mutual respect and love. But while it's unfair to compare it too closely with the Deborah Kerr/Yul Brynner version, what emerges here is an unexpectedly humane study of two people whose deep affection for each other cannot overcome the impossibility of their situation.
Yun-Fat, in a superb performance, is far from the bumptious despot yearning for respectability in the eyes of his colonial neighbours. Here he is a conscientious monarch shackled to tradition, yet committed to modernising his country without sacrificing its independence or cultural identity. In this, his iron-handed rule is expedient rather than savage, and it makes for a more even match with the headstrong Anna. Foster, sporting an oddly effective clipped British accent, is also excellent. If a residue of sentimentality remains, it's to the credit of everyone involved that neither the scale of the film nor the inherently slushy nature of the material obscure the human drama at its core. The kids are just about bearable, too.
Strong performances, opulent visuals and best of all Jodie Foster doesn't sing.