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In 1862, Anna Owens, a young English widow of an army officer who died in India, arrives in Bangkok with her son Louis after accepting a job teaching English to the children of the King of Siam. Despite Anna's protests that she was promised her own house, the Kralahome, the prime minister, insists that she not approach the King with her displeasure until after the New Year and its attending festivals. Anna and Louis settle into their living quarters in the palace, only to discover they are living next to the King's harem. After a number of months, Anna boldly presents herself to the King, who prides himself on introducing the country to the modern world through his self-described "scientific" outlook. Anna agrees to teach English, not only to the King's sixty-seven children, but also to his many wives. When he insists that she live in the palace permanently, however, she packs to leave. A servant then conducts her to a house the King has agreed to let her have, but when she finds that it is in the fish market and in horrible disrepair, Anna is angry and vows revenge. She returns to the palace and begins classes with the help of the King's first wife, Lady Thiang, who learned English from a missionary. Anna gets back at the King by teaching the wives and children songs and proverbs about houses and honor. When the French place Cambodia under their protection, the King realizes that partitioning is inevitable, and rather than fight, chooses to save as much of the country as possible. He grants Anna her house and, having won, Anna decides to leave Siam, but she is forcibly brought before the Kralahome, who convinces her to stay and help the King with his struggle to advance his country. One day after class, Lady Thiang tells Anna that Tuptim, a beautiful young woman who was recently given to the King as a birthday present from the governor, is the King's new favorite. She adds that she herself is not in favor with her husband, but her position is secure because she is the mother of the royal prince. In the middle of the night, the King summons Anna to discuss a passage from the Bible, and while returning home later, she passes Tuptim's weeping slave, who is in chains and cradling a baby. Anna confronts Tuptim the next day, pointing out that because the slave's husband has offered to buy her, by law she should be freed. Tuptim bitterly refuses, and Anna appeals to the King, explaining the importance of applying the law consistently. When Anna mentions Abraham Lincoln's mission to bring equality to everyone in the United States, the King immediately dictates a letter to the President, offering to send him elephants to help with the war effort. Shortly after receiving Lincoln's warm reply, the King asks Anna to instruct the prettiest women in the harem in European dress and manners in time for a visit from the British representative, Sir Edward Ramsey. With Anna's help, the King gives a formal dinner for Sir Edward and other European dignitaries, and Siam's image greatly improves. Later, Lady Thiang tells Anna that Tuptim has been captured after running away and hiding in a monastery, where her former betrothed is a priest. Anna watches Tuptim's interrogation and interferes when the guards start to beat her. She then goes to the King and pleads that Tuptim be given a fair trial, angrily denouncing him as a barbarian when he refuses. Tuptim and the priest are burned at the stake, and Anna resigns her post. After saying goodbye to the King's wives and children, Anna calls on Lady Thiang, who reproaches her for not having spent more time with the Prince, who needs guidance to become a better man than his father. That afternoon, Louis is thrown from his horse and killed, and the King designates a national day of mourning and gives Anna a royal title as a sign of respect. The Prince visits Anna to offer his cherished baby elephant as a gift, and, moved by the boy's loneliness and grief, Anna embraces him. The King asks her to stay, and Anna continues her work at the school, devoting extra attention to the Prince. Years pass, and one day the King falls ill. Anna rushes to his side, and before dying, he expresses gratitude for all she has done. The Prince is crowned king, and Anna watches with pride as he begins to institute reforms, as his father would have wished.