The Critics: Cinema - The bald and the beautiful

The King and I Director: Richard Rich Voices: Miranda Richardson, Martin Vidnovic (89 mins; U)

Ah, The King and I. Or, as my late grandmother used to refer to it, "The King and One". Now there's a movie that marked my adolescence. Curiously, though, if I've never since forgotten it, it's less for the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, unfailingly tuneful as it is, or the two leads, Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, or the story - prim, feisty English schoolmistress arrives with her son at the court of 19th-century Siam to take up the post of governess to the King's children - than for the wealth and diversity of what might be called its trivial signifiers.

Once, while lecturing on semiology at the College de France, Roland Barthes was challenged by a mischievous student to identify the Saussurian "signifier" of, precisely, a lecturer. He scanned the auditorium for a moment or two, then, without uttering a word, pointed at the carafe of water on the table directly in front of him. Where there's a carafe, was the implication, there's always a lecturer, and where there's a lecturer there's invariably a carafe.

Barthes's carafe (good title for a book) was a classic trivial signifier, and in The King and I there were many such. Primarily, I suppose, Yul Brynner's baldness, which became so associated with the role it would be unthinkable now to revive it with hair. But also his wiry athlete's legs, exposed by silken knee-length knickerbockers. Or his imperiously reiterated "Et cetera ... Et cetera ... Et cetera ... " Or the flounce of Deborah Kerr's voluminous gown, which spread around her like a big blue satin stain whenever she knelt on the polished palace floor. Or the floor itself, which was as mirrory as the stage of Radio City Music Hall, but also, I seem to recall, ever so slightly scratchy, as though what we were watching was "The King and I on Ice". Or the blue-and-gold radiance of Leon Shamroy's delicately gaudy cinematography. Ah yes, those really were the days.

The King and I of which I speak was made in 1956. Its director, Walter Lang, was a typical Hollywood hack whose career is of interest to neither theorists nor historians. Based on a Broadway show, the film is sometimes both stagy and stodgy and has little of the panache of Hollywood's finest original musicals. And yet ... And yet, because Brynner, offered the role of his life, played it to the hilt and well beyond, because practically every number - "Getting to Know You", "Shall We Dance?", "Hello Young Lovers" - has become a standard (just one would be enough to make a modern musical a colossal hit) and, above all, because of the signifiers which I list above, and which no one could have guessed in advance would turn out to be so naggingly memorable, the film, though no masterpiece, has contrived to endure as long and as vividly as one.

Hollywood being, as we know, increasingly an industry not of producers but of reproducers, it was perhaps to be expected that they would eventually get round to remaking The King and I - though less expected is that they would remake it as a cartoon.

That the new version is an unsalvageable dud - an ordeal, I suspect, even for its targeted tot audience - should come as no surprise. That the computer-generated imagery is ugly and slapdash offers conclusive proof that animation ought to have remained an artisanal craft. That the gorgeous "March of the Siamese Children", a sparkling orchestral passage worthy of comparison with the ballet music of Delibes or Glazunov, has been truncated and bastardised causes one to wonder why they bothered to buy the rights to the show in the first place. That the additions to its plot - a crudely conventional dragon, a pair of scheming, bumbling courtiers - are, respectively, seriously unscary and seriously unfunny makes one realise after all why they didn't dare leave their inept animators to their own devices. That, finally, the narrative has been saddled with a grotesque slew of happy endings (in the earlier version, the King dies and Tuptim, one of the song's "Young Lovers", is beheaded) is further evidence, were evidence still needed, of contemporary Hollywood's fathomless vulgarity. Et cetera ... Et cetera ... Et cetera ...

Most dishearteningly, the new film has retained all the little signifiers of the old, only to drain the life and memorability out of them. Yes, the King is bald, but he's so anonymously characterised that, as I write this review, two days after the press screening, I find I can no longer conjure up his face, his voice or, indeed, his legs, whereas I believe I'll remember Yul Brynner's to my dying day. Yes, he says "Et cetera ... Et cetera ... Et cetera ..." a lot, except that, this time around, it sounds as though the writers just couldn't be troubled to invent new dialogue for him. And, yes, Anna's animated gown billows across the polished palace floor in the requisite manner, but the effect, alas, is mainly to cheapen the memory of Deborah Kerr's.

Like many a contemporary Hollywood remake, then, this King and I is not only less good than the original, it makes the original itself suddenly seem less good. I wish I'd never seen it.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'