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This review is from: Monarch [DVD] (DVD)
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According to legend, when Henry VIII was divorcing his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, he heard a sermon given by a Friar Peto at Greenwich. Fr Peto prophesied that when the king died, the dogs would lick his blood. This foretelling of Henry’s demise is one of the striking images used by writer and director John Walsh in his film Monarch, which is set in the winter just before Henry’s death in 1547.
Set during one stormy January night, the last remaining retainer of an abandoned country estate is woken in the early hours by three men, carrying what looks a large, lumpy and cumbersome sack. Inside is Henry, seriously but not fatally injured by an unknown attacker on the road. For the rest of the night Henry, for once in his life, is alone and vulnerable: trapped in a house that isn’t his, away from the comforts of his court and at the mercy of the three men who have brought him there. Who exactly are these men? Will they protect the king, or kill him? And who is the stranger flitting about the rooftops?
Monarch is largely about power: it uses Henry’s predicament as an opportunity to explore the impact of his reign, and the decisions that he has made personally. He is clearly ailing, the country is bankrupt, his courtiers are sick of him and, worst of all, he is haunted by the ghosts of wives past, all played by Jean Marsh. This is a king with time on his hands to reflect on how he has used and abused the power at his disposal, and to acknowledge his mistakes.
But Monarch is also about history and who writes it. As well as Fr Peto’s sermon, many other Henrician myths, legends and half-truths swirl about this drama and the film encourages us to think about what we really know about Henry, and what we have been told about him by others. As his power begins to slip away and his nobles start to look beyond his death, there’s a glimpse of how grim his life must have been by 1547.
T P McKenna gives a sympathetic performance as Henry, and I also enjoyed Peter Sowerbutts as one of the scheming nobles. The film is also beautifully crafted, with lots of careful thought given to location, sound design and score. I’d recommend it everyone who has enjoyed Hilary Mantell’s Cromwell novels, and to people who want to go a bit further than fact-based dramatisations of Henry VIII’s life.