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ANNA AND THE KING – George Fenton

December 17, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

annaandthekingOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

During the last couple of years, British composer George Fenton has suddenly burst to the forefront of the film music world, after years of being considered nothing more than a talented journeyman. As the force behind the sensational Ever After and Dangerous Beauty in 1998, Fenton’s reputation as the man for the romantic drama has been cemented beyond all doubt. However, the jewel in Fenton’s lyrical crown is surely Anna and the King, a new reworking of the classic romantic tale which first captured the imagination of the cinema-going public with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.

After the exceptional Rex Harrison/Irene Dunne original Anna and the King of Siam in 1946, the universally loved Yul Brynner/Deborah Kerr musical a decade later, and a lackluster animated feature just last year, one could have considered Andy Tennant’s new dramatic version a little bit redundant. In practice, nothing could be further from the truth. In casting Jodie Foster and Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat in the leading roles, director Tennant has undoubtedly pulled off the casting coup of the year, with Fat especially impressing in his first real non-action role. For those who don’t know the story, Anna and the King is set in the early part of the 20th century and is based on the diaries of prim English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Foster), who travels with her young son Louis (Tom Felton) to Siam to tutor the King’s son in the ways of the west. Once in Bangkok, however, Anna ruffles many feathers with her hitherto un-encountered feminist approach, and her growing relationship with the patriarchal King Mongkut (Fat), a man who is seen by his people as like a God.

Mixing a large symphony orchestra with a number of authentic ethnic soloists, George Fenton’s music simply soars, combining the familiar Hollywood sound with the captivating flavor of the exotic east to great effect.  Several cues stand out as being of extra special quality, most notable among these being the stunning main title theme ‘Arrival at the Palace’. Over the course of the opening six minutes, each of the score’s recurring musical elements are introduced in turn, from the lush sound wash of the orchestra, the intriguing erhu, ethnic woodwind and percussion performances, and the deft action music. There are moments which briefly recall Thomas Newman’s score for Red Corner in this track, but the similarities are purely in orchestration, and Fenton’s arrangements are far superior. Equally effective in this context are several of the subsequent cues, especially ‘Meeting the Children’ and ‘Letter of the Week’.

A slightly sorrowful violin theme for the King’s concubine, first heard in ‘Tuptim’, is recapitulated later in ‘The Rice Festival’, but receives its finest performance in the tremendously powerful ‘The Execution’, in which the theme plays heartbreaking counterpoint to the amassed brass section. However, it is when the score enters the full-blown romantic arena that it really shines. Beginning with the sumptuous ‘I Am King, I Shall Lead’, Fenton’s love theme for Anna and Mongkut shimmers and sparkles, with the central piano melody combining effortlessly with the fullest orchestra and fragrant eastern textures, illustrating the connection between the two alien cultures in love. Further performances, in the moving ‘Flowers on the Water, the graceful ‘Moonlit Beach’, the soaring ‘Anna Returns’ and the utterly stunning finale ‘I Have Danced With a King’ further enhance Fenton’s reputation as the romantic composer of the late 90s.

In complete contrast, two pieces of buoyant original source music, ‘Anniversary Polka’ and the latter half of ‘I Am King, I Shall Lead’, allow Fenton to engage in some pseudo-Straussian frivolity, showcasing his versatility and his adeptness at turning what could have been just another dance sequence into a musical delight. Finally, Fenton’s largely untapped action credentials are brought to the fore in cues such as ‘Rajah Attack’, ‘Betrayed’ and ‘The Bridge’, which reverberate with a surprisingly massive percussion section. The end credits song, ‘How Can I Not Love You’, is written by Fenton, Robert Kraft and uber-producer Babyface Edmonds and performed with feeling by Joy Enriquez. Although the chorus is not directly based upon Fenton’s central theme (it is actually an expanded reworking of the three-note main melody), it is still an attractive song in its own right, and is in no way a detriment to the score as a whole.

Having experienced several excellent Orientally-inflected scores over the last couple of years, notably Rachel Portman’s The Joy Luck Club, Hans Zimmer’s Beyond Rangoon, Elliot Goldenthal’s Golden Gate and Kitaro’s Heaven & Earth, it is with great pleasure that I can say that Fenton’s Anna and the King stands proudly alongside these landmark works. There is something about Western composers writing Asian music that really appeals to my ear – whether it be the unique scales and harmonies this music employs, or the instrumentation, or whatever. This is a score which makes you feel honored to be a film music fan, and I truly hope that Fenton is duly recognized for his efforts, both for score and song.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • How Can I Not Love You (written by George Fenton, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Robert Kraft, performed by Joy Enriquez) (4:34)
  • Arrival at the Palace (6:00)
  • Meeting the Children (1:32)
  • Tuptim (1:32)
  • Letter of the Week (1:38)
  • The House (1:38)
  • The Rice Festival (4:23)
  • Rajah Attack (0:58)
  • Anniversary Polka (3:20)
  • I Am King, I Shall Lead (2:28)
  • Flowers on the Water (4:22)
  • Moonlit Beach (1:42)
  • Betrayed (1:52)
  • Chowfa’s Death (1:28)
  • The Execution (4:19)
  • Anna Returns (3:44)
  • The Bridge (6:42)
  • I Have Danced With a King (6:17)

Running Time: 59 minutes 18 seconds

La Face Records 73008-26075-2 (1999)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by Geoff Alexander and Jeff Atmajian. Featured musical soloists James Walker, Phil Ayling, Tiffany Yi Hu, Karen Han, Alan Estes, Michael Fisher, Greg Goodall, Steve Schaeffer, Bob Zimmetti and Dan Grecco. Recorded and mixed by John Richards. Edited by Michael Ryan and Graham Sutton. Mastered by Joe Gastwirt. Album produced by George Fenton.

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