William Shakespeare wrote a tetralogy of historical plays dramatizing the legacy of several British monarchs, and if you've read the Henriad trilogy, you have an idea of what's coming in The King. The Netflix original adapts the story of young Prince Henry V of England (Timothée Chalamet), who suddenly becomes king after his father dies. But don't expect iambic pentameter or a completely faithful rehash of its characters. Lily-Rose Depp plays Catherine of Valois, the French princess-turned-queen-consort of England. While the Bard's plays feature a prime, proper princess, who's oblivious to the political workings of the world, The King's take is much different.
"She was fascinating! I didn’t know much about Catherine before starting, but I had fun diving into the research. We even had historians on set who could answer questions. Catherine really has a voice and she came from a family of strong women," Depp told Vogue Australia. "Her father, Charles VI, had bouts of madness and so her mother ruled for him sometimes, behind closed doors. Catherine also had sisters, including Isabella who was married to King Richard II."
But in Shakespeare's Henry V, Catherine is as a meek woman who is used for comic relief. Mostly, she serves as a contrast to the grim world in which her husband and her father belong. Depp was pleased to learn that the creative team behind The King had no intention of retaining that characterization.
"I think it was evident from the writing how much respect [screenwriter Joel Edgerton] and [writer/director David Michôd] had for Catherine," Depp told Vogue Australia. "The women in The King are the voices of reason, the only ones untouched by the greed and thirst for power that consumes the men."
Edgerton, who also plays Falstaff in the film, told Variety that he has a penchant for the Henriad, as he previously played Prince Hal (who would be crowned Henry V) on stage. But it wasn't until he read a script for another "swords and horses" type of film that he started to consider adapting it. Edgerton then approached Animal Kingdom director Michôd, who had no experience in this realm of storytelling. "We made the decision really early on to move away from Shakespeare for a whole number of different reasons," Michôd told the publication. They made this call not only because the play's structure wouldn't work in a film format, but also because of, as the director puts it, "stuff that was thematic and political, and to do with character."
Still, the film stays historically accurate. In The King, Catherine gets married according to her father's wishes and is initially a tool by which her husband gains power. Historically, according to Theresa Earenfight's Queenship in Medieval Europe, Catherine was "suggested as a wife for Henry IV's eldest son at various times — 1408, 1409, 1413, and 1414 — as a way to promote peace between England and France," as the two kingdoms were in the middle of the Hundred Years' War, which went on from 1337-1453. They got married on June 2, 1420, as part of the terms of the Treaty of Troyes. And because of the marriage, Henry V became the heir to the French throne upon the passing of Charles VI. But, as the BBC notes, the treaty was only honored by northern France.
The relationship between Depp's Catherine and Chalamet's Henry V isn't cold, however. They do butt heads, but there seems to be a mutual respect. "From the audition to the shoot, there was an evolution in Catherine’s curiosity and interest in Henry. In my audition, I was more stern. I don’t think she’s excited about meeting him, but she’s smart and able to see past what everyone’s saying about him," Depp explained to Vogue Australia.
"She’s not flirtatious, but she’s not hateful either. By the end of that scene, there’s a mutual understanding between them and for me, that developed over time," Depp continued. "Henry is destabilized by her in a way that he hasn’t been by anyone else. It’s said that for the rest of Catherine and Henry’s relationship, after our story ends and history continues, they were very fond of each other." And it seems this fondness also carried over to real life, as Depp and Chalamet have reportedly coupled-up.
But while the two actors seem to be going strong, their characters' marriage was short-lived. Henry V passed away in 1422, months before Charles VI passed away — meaning Henry never got the chance to sit on the French throne. Three years after the King of England's death, Catherine married Welsh squire Owen Tudor, which began the Tudor royal lineage.
And so Catherine of Valois is not only a key figure in The King, but in actual British history. Though she didn't wield as much power as the men in her time, The King and Depp's portrayal posit that she used her strength and influence as much as a 15th century woman could.