Here is an old-fashioned costume drama with sumptuous sets, stirring music, and beguiling landscapes. Fans of the 1956 movie The King and I will notice changes in the storyline and thematic emphases. This film, absent the familiar score of the musical, gives more attention to the cross-cultural elements in the story.
When British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) arrives in Siam with her son Louis (Tom Felton) in 1862, it is quite clear that she is a formidable woman who has definite ideas of what she wants and what she will not do. King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat) is revered in his realm as a god and although he believes that change must come, there are certain traditions he holds sacred. The meeting of these two strong-willed individuals draws sparks. They represent the East of tradition and the West of modernization.
Anna is shocked to hear herself called "sir" at court; women in Siam are second-class citizens who would not be allowed to address the King publicly. Even more of a surprise is the fact that the King wants her to teach his 58 children of various wives and concubines. After she pressures him to keep the promises in her contract, her employer gives her a house outside the palace. But the King and Anna have serious philosophical differences over the fate of a runaway slave and the treatment of the King's latest concubine (Bai Ling), who is unable to stay away from the man she loved and left behind. Anna's imaginative abilities even extend to a solution to a rebellious coup in Siam.
Director Andy Tennant draws out a regal performance from Jodie Foster, who is radiant in many scenes of righteous indignation. The romantic attraction of the King to this unusual woman is convincingly rendered by Hong Kong star Chow Yu-Fat. Anna and the King with its cross-cultural emphasis perfectly illustrates the truth of an insight offered by Confucius centuries ago: "Human beings draw close to one another by their common nature, but habits and customs keep them apart."