Saturday 13 July 2019

Movie Review: The King And I (1956)

A musical drama and romance, The King And I enjoys a larger-than-life Yul Brynner performance and a couple of good musical numbers, but otherwise sags under the weight of a turgid production.

It's the 1860s, and British teacher Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) and her young son arrive in Siam. She has accepted the position of educator to the children of King Mongkut (Yul Brynner), but is disappointed to learn from Prime Minister Kralahome (Martin Benson) that the King has reneged on a promise to provide her with a private house outside the castle.

Anna finds the King a stern but intriguing man, the arrogant father of numerous children but keenly interested in expanding his knowledge of science and international politics. She establishes a good rapport with her students and also meets Tuptim (Rita Moreno), the Burmese slave wife of the King who is still secretly in love with her beau Lun Tha (Carlos Rivas). Anna gradually establishes herself as a capable advisor to the King, but their relationship remains complex.

Based on the 1951 Broadway musical which in turn was an adaptation of the 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, The King And I features the music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and Yul Brynner's career defining performance. Recreating the role he made his own on the stage, Brynner dominates the screen with a restless, authoritative fists-on-hips display of power.

While Kerr (with her singing dubbed by Marni Nixon) adequately grounds Anna in predictable British mannerisms, most of the rest of the film does not live up to Brynner's energy level. Getting To Know You and Shall We Dance? are superlative set-pieces, but the rest of the musical numbers are eminently forgettable. And for a film drawn out to 133 minutes, the supporting characters are close to nonexistent. Anna's son Louis appears at the start and end and otherwise disappears entirely, while Prime Minister Kralahome is equally underutilized. The lingering romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha is reduced to the simplest of fallow sketches.

The King And I features a bewildering play-within-a-play, an artistically staged eastern version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, converted by Tuptim into a condemnation of the King's attachment to wife enslavement. The sequence is both enchanting and distracting, a misfit in the overall narrative arc but nevertheless captivating in its simplistic beauty.

Director Walter Lang confines the action to a few studio-created sets representing various mammoth rooms within the King's castle. Captured in CinemaScope, the set design is impressive and colourful, but the film never threatens to escape its stage origins. Meanwhile the core story suffers from a tired west-is-best mentality, and is further hindered by a hideous make-up job to unconvincingly transform white and Hispanic cast members into Asians.

The King And I enshrines Brynner's forceful screen persona, but is an otherwise confounding royal encounter.

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