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Old Story, New Glory 

*Anna and the King (PG-13)
Fox Pictures

During the holidays, I can feel logistics getting the better of me. Between work and family and the usual home duties like getting the laundry done, I don't have the wherewithal to even think about one more thing.

That's why I have a normal job in a normal suburb in normal U.S.A. If I had epic vision and the organizational powers of the United Nations I might, instead, be Andy Tennant, the director of Anna and the King. So help me, as scene after scene of great beauty and organizational complexity unfolded in this film, I kept thinking "How did they get all those people to stand in front of that antique ship?" or "Where did they find all those elephants and elephant drivers?" or "How could they have commissioned so many gorgeous costumes?"

If you're not so obsessed with organization as I, you might just kick back and enjoy this retelling of the story of Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster), a British widow employed as an English teacher to King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat) of Thailand in the 1860s.

Unlike the 1956 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I, this retelling of Leonowen's story is rather serious in its treatment of the political circumstances in Siam, the consequences of colonialism (including on the colonizers), and the relationships between Asia and the British during the age of British expansion.

Jodie Foster has been criticized for a rather dour performance, but I thought her work was subtle and well informed. In the age of hoop skirts, white gloves and class ossification, British women, especially widows having to make their own way in the world, were rarely encouraged to engage in great jollity. Foster's now slightly lined face and bright blue eyes are perfectly mesmerizing as she struggles with the clash of cultures, and sometimes loses.

Acting opposite Chow Yun-Fat must have been a great pleasure, for the man is not only easy on the eyes but has a wonderful command of facial expression that underscores the trials of an intelligent, regal ruler struggling to keep his country out of the hands of foreign domination.

Don't mistake Anna and the King for real history, however. As with most historical fiction, there's plenty of history in the fiction, and plenty of fiction in the history as well. No matter. If you're going to the film to try to learn the true history of 19th century Thailand, you'll come out with the kind of half truths engendered by diarists and screenwriters. Go instead to be captivated by the kind of spectacle that Hollywood alone can create, the organizational and visual feats of lush scenery, beautiful costuming, and good special effects, and you won't be disappointed.

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