The Madness of King George
directed by Nicholas Hytner
Starring Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren
Playing at Sony Harvard Square
Bring on the chamber pots and powdered wigs! Don't be turned off by a dry title announcing a seemingly dry period of history. "The Madness of King George" is a wild ride in a staid carriage. Virtually identical to British playwright Alan Bennett's very successful original stage play, Nicholas Hynter's film is not only great entertainment, but quality cinema.
King George really did go mad two hundred years ago, or so it seemed at the time. Modern research has since decided that George was suffering from porphyria, a reversible condition of the blood causing all the symptoms of insanity.
"The Madness of King George" tells the story of George's decline and recuperation. At the same time, it follows the scheming of his son, the foppish Prince of Wales. George IV is tired of warming the bench for George III, and plans to take advantage of his father's illness to claim the throne.
At first, it seems wrong to take King George's side. Arch-villain in the annals of American history, and big-nosed to boot, he's not even an attractive bad guy. In his crown, he looks like the British (or Hanover German) version of a middle-aged American in full Elks regalia. But George, as portrayed by Nigel Hawthorne, is irresistible. In all his bawdy charm and depth, the King is a Shakespearean creation.
Bennett recognizes a certain debt to a famous predecessor. As George recovers from his illness, he reads aloud from "King Lear" with his doctor. Bennett's king, however, is not about to be destroyed by his heirs and followers like his Shakespearean predecessor.
Nigel Hawthorne plays him down and dirty, so loud and rude to start with that it's hard to tell exactly when the madness sets in. And yet, in all his rantings and ravings, George never lets anyone forget he was born a king. "I am the Lord's annointed!" he bellows.
The Lord's annointed, we find, performs like any of God's lesser creations. The color of his urine is the subject of much interest in the film - during his madness, it is as blue as his blood (a symptom of porphyria). George doesn't neglect any of the other bodily functions either. "Saving your presence, I will try a fart," he informs his Lady (Helen Mirren). He is equally uninhibited in bed.
The Prince of Wales often bears the brunt of his father's bluntness. It can hardly be pleasant to be called a "fat turd," and the Prince plots revenge. Unfortunately, he really is somewhat of a fat turd, powdered and bewigged. He allies himself with the Whig faction of government, but is really more interested in legitimating his secret marriage than in taking a political stance.
All of the rhetoric of Parliament and of private life is extremely successful in "The Madness of King George." Bennett's script far surpasses in quality and density most other attempts at filmic eloquence. In comparison, Hollywood looks doubly vapid, and Kieslowski-type efforts seem anemic.
And all of this scatological elaboration and royal competition takes place on a simple yet beautifully filmed backdrop of British ambiance. George in short nightshirt alternates scenes with George as the ultimate redcoat, palace rooms give way to country hills ("Farmer" George admires the breeding of pigs), and Handel's Water Music evokes the century's mood.
George eventually recovers. And even though Hawthorne does a marvelous job writhing in a restraining chair and hiding under beds, the viewer applauds his recovery along with the British populace. His return to public life is as exuberant as his previous illness.
Mr. King and Mrs. King, as they call themselves, have a job to perform--they must display their lives as model, and their family as exemplary. When at last the family stands reunited on the steps of Saint Paul's for the celebration of George's recovery, Hynter manages to make the viewer believe that this is indeed a heroic act. Tragic, comic, and heroic--"The Madness of King George" really lives up to long-forgotten standards of entertainment.