The Critics: Cinema - The bald and the beautiful

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