THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE *** 1/2
The main problem the makers had was what title to use. The film comes from a popular British play, "The Madness of George III." But, with the decline of historical knowledge, some U.S audiences might think that "III" means the third film in a series, like the Rambo or Rocky movies. So the number was dropped and "King" was inserted, to make it clear that this was not an ordinary George.
George III was, of course the king who "lost the American colonies" and who was also known later as "The Mad King." Both are simplifications, but then neither the play nor the movie are University courses in History. And when you think of the dreadful oversimplifications, fallacies, lies and inventions that movies have perpetrated on history, "The Madness..." comes through with flying, royal colors.
This is the impressive directorial film debut of stage director Nicholas Hytner, who a few years ago had made another debut, in musicals, with "Miss Saigon." It is also the movie debut for Costume Designer Mark Thompson. And, for all practical purposes, it is the true introduction to cinema viewers outside Great Britain of stage, film and TV actor Nigel Hawthorne who had also played King George III on the stage.
While in England Hawthorne is known and respected, in anglophone countries his name is only associated with the satirical "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" BBC series. He is not listed in the standard reference works, or in the supporting cast in films like "Gandhi" or "Turtle Diary." So it is fair to say that with "The Madness" a star is born.
On the other hand, stage and cinema actress Helen Mirren (the Queen) has been known to a select international public for roles in films such as John Mackenzie's "The Long Good FridaY" (1980), Pat O'Connor's "Cal" (1984), Peter Weir's "The Mosquito Coast" (1986), James Dearden's much neglected "Pascali's Island" (1988) or Peter Greenaway's controversial "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover "(1989). She reached an even wider public as the police inspector in the BBC miniseries "Prime Suspect" (1991).
For her performance in "The Madness of King George" Mirren won the Best Actress Prize at the 1995 Cannes Festival. It is justified but I suspect that it was mostly a tribute to her fine and orisginal parts in earlier films.
"The Madness" opens in 1788 (well after the loss of America) with pomp, ceremony and splendid music by Handel. The courtiers, the King and Queen Charlotte (Mirren) are preparing to go to Parliament. The tone is perfectly set, with as much historical exactitude as possible, but also from an ironical, revisionist point of view. If this is not exactly a socialist stance, it is not a monarchy-loving one either.
Yet Their Majesties are treated with the kind of reserved warmth that the English show for originals and eccentrics. In private the royal couple call each other Mr. King and Mrs. King and converse like good bourgeois, affectionately and often wittily. After all, the Queen, as they used to say "gave" her spouse no less than 15 children.
It is the oldest of them, the Prince of Wales (Everett), who is the target of the movie's discontent. Wales, profligate and disssolute, is allied with the Whig opposition led by Charles James Fox, while King George (in another, but harmless simplification) is supported by the Tories of young Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, imperturbably played by Julian Wadham.
The King is authoritarian and capricious to those around him, and very conscious of rank, as well as quite aware of the growing powers of Parliament. At the same time "Farmer George" has a penchant for the simple people and things, and between his bouts of "pro forma" autocracy he can be quite endearing. He can also be -- even when deranged -- rather poetic, with some of his lines sounding almost Shakespearean. I cannot praise enough Nigel Hawthorne's impersonation -- though I wonder about his deep suntan.
The Prince of Wales would like nothing better than to ascend to the throne. He almost gets his chance when suddenly King George starts behaving in increasingly peculiar ways. No doubt, he has gone mad, Wales would like nothing better than to ascend to the throne. And he almost gets his chance when suddenly HM starts behaving in increasingly peculiar ways. No doubt, the King has gone gaga, crackers,crazy, unhinged, off his rocker, daffy, loopy, daft, batty, nutty, cuckoo, bonkers, looney, mad as a hatter -- albeit with flashes of sanity.He says, during one of those: "I am here, but I am not all there."
The plot thickens in two directions. In one, the Wales & Co. try to have Parliament declare George III non compos mentis and make Wales the Regent. The other follows the progress of George's madness. It would be cheating to detail it here. I will only mention that with the malady comes blue urine, and that at one point, seized by the need, George suddenly enters a lady's chamber shouting "Piss pot!" and urges himself "Do it, England! Do it!"
I know that laughing at insanity, whether with or at it, is politically incorrect today. But that was in another country, and besides, the King is dead. And this was and still is England, where the boundaries between correctness and incorrectness are fuzzy. The King's peculiarities are such a source of Monty Pythonish mirth that this element bids fair to conceal the sympathy we feel for the Royal pain. Still, we root for him, his recovery and his defeat of Wales' ambitions.
Medical science being a joke then, the doctors are ignorant, pompous, stupid charlatans straight out of Moliere. Help comes when the King is entrusted to Dr. Wills (Ian Holm who, standing, is at the level of the seated monarch). Willis is a maverick, an eccentric and a kind of psychiatrist who, in complex and often painful ways, eventually cures the King. So here we have perhaps the first pre-shrink in English history and the first pre-shrunk King.
George III's disease, from clues examined today, may have been porphyria "a metabolic imbalance that reproduces all the symptoms of mental illness" which, says the film at the end, affects the nervous system, can recur, and is hereditary. This not-so-sly dig at today's Royal family, and especially Prince Charles and Princess Diane, is but a fraction of the satirical parallels between then and now and also imply that madness of one kind or another goes hand in hand with power -- or the absence of it.
Jokes, allusions, references, one-liners fill the movie, yet at no time does one get the impression of filmed theater -- a major, rare accomplishment. The acting is top-drawer. You bask in colorful language and in the lavish production. Remarkable too is the hazy photography of interiors that evokes both haziness of mind and the actual dust that must have filled the palatial halls.
At the end, the (temporarily) cured George III and the jolly royals go to Parliament. "We must" says the King to his wife, " be a model family for the nation to look to" in another dig at Elizabeth II's tribe. Cleverly, this upbeat sequence, unlike many earlier ones, is filmed in sunny weather and vibrant, light , "positive" colors.
Madness returned to King George several times and his son did become Regent, then the disliked George IV. Earlier, George III was unloved by the nation, but after his first recovery, he became and remained most popular. It seems to me that, all things considered, he was a much better king than the two Georges who framed his reign.