Many people in the court of King George III, the protagonist of a fascinating new British comedy by director Nicholas Hytner, suspected something wasn't quite right with the old man, but they had no sure way to prove it. And the etiquette of monarchy being what it was, they couldn't exactly press the issue -- because the king was the king, and whatever he said or did was his prerogative.
That's why, when the old man began changing from a fuddy-duddy figurehead into a prankish old goblin who leered at women's breasts, insulted people left and right and grumbled obscenities for no apparent reason, the befuddled folks surrounding him had no other course of action but to nod and smile indulgently and mutter, "Quite right, your highness."
Then came the day when King George interrupted a royal concert, pranced up to the orchestra, took the harpsichordist's place at the keyboard and proceeded to jam like John Belushi doing his Ray Charles-as-Beethoven routine. The incident occurred not in a private meeting, but in public, before dozens of prominent members of the royal court. It became evident to all that the king had gone bonkers, which split those close to him into two camps. One wanted to help the king get better and shield him from harm; the other wanted to play up his sickness in order to seize power.
This is a marvelous subject for a comedy, and in The Madness of King George, screenwriter Alan Bennett (who also wrote the play on which the movie is based) and Hytner handle it with sure and steady hands, alternating broad slapstick and hilariously dry verbal riffs with some surprisingly effective moments of pathos and sentiment.
The story hews fairly close to historical fact, tracing what happened in the 18th-century period following Britain's loss of the American colonies, and the crown's struggle to avoid ceding power to a newly feisty Parliament. It is now believed that George was suffering from porphyria, a metabolic imbalance that creates the illusion of severe mental illness; at the time, though, all his subjects knew was that something wasn't quite right. The power struggle that surrounds poor, pathetic George is another variation on the old corruption-beneath-the-glitz story that writers have told and retold over the millennia.
What makes it fascinating once again, and sometimes oddly touching, is the idea that the bizarre and irrational demands placed on kings and queens are enough to drive any reasonable person stark raving mad. The film hints that, in a disturbing way, George's medical condition actually liberates him, giving him an excuse to vent all the base impulses he's suppressed in the name of royal propriety for so many years.
As brilliantly played by distinguished British actor Nigel Hawthorne (best known stateside for his work in the TV import Yes, Minister), the man is an imp trapped in the body of an elder statesman, and once the madness kicks in, he turns into a comic monster of startling energy and depth -- a needling prankster who uses the age-old customs governing how royalty are treated as an excuse to have a childishly grand old time.
Some of the film's biggest laughs come from the sight of George spewing nonsense phrases or rambling on and on about nothing in particular, then eyeing whoever's listening with a vaguely menacing expression until they suppress their urges to laugh or gasp, and respond with the standard expressions of toadying approval. Hawthorne's slight leer when he does this, coupled with the combative gleam in his eyes, is hysterically funny.
His work here conjures the ghosts of several classic screen clowns. During the verbal sparring matches, Hawthorne comes on like Groucho Marx surrounded by a kingdom full of Margaret Dumonts. During much of the slapstick -- particularly a scene in which he wakes up the servants at his castle at the crack of dawn, runs around the surrounding countryside in his nightshirt and demands that they follow him -- he's like a blue-blooded cousin of Harpo. And during scenes of bawdy, excremental humor, his expression of dementedly merry enthusiasm suggests Mel Brooks mugging his way through The History of the World, Part 1. (I think that at one point, George actually does exclaim, "It's good to be the king!" -- and if he doesn't, the line is unspoken punctuation to everything he says and does, anyway.)
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There's no special filmmaking excitement on display in The Madness of King George. Hytner's direction reminded me of the smart-yet-bland aura found in a lot of British-produced Ealing Studios comedies from the 1950s, except during a couple of striking sequences set inside George's castle, in which assorted hallways, bedchambers and gigantic stairwells are photographed with an almost Wellesian grandeur. And the film errs, I think, when a physician played by Ian Holm (doing his standard trembling, bug-eyed, lizard-lipped cretin bit) rides in to save the day, hammering the pathetic old monarch with various barbaric treatments, including an amazingly sadistic blistering procedure. Because the script doesn't find a way to explain that George will recover temporarily, and for chemical reasons that have almost nothing to do with his treatments, the film gives the troubling impression that the doctor's mix of proto-psychoanalysis and cryptic brutality are what did the trick.
But the film is still immensely involving, primarily because of its large and talented cast. Helen Mirren is a joy as George's devoted wife, Queen Charlotte, who stands by her man even when he can't remember who she is, and Rupert Everett is also quite fine as the foppish Prince of Wales, who schemes to use George's madness as a pretext for seizing power. I was also fond of Rupert Graves, who plays Captain Greville, the king's unflappable right-hand man and liaison to Parliament, with such an amusingly stiff upper lip that at times he suggests a Chuck Jones cartoon version of a royal bureaucrat.
The performers are so good that they rescue even the clunkiest scenes, such as the one in which George and his doctor sit in lawn chairs and perform a passage from that classic of royal madness, King Lear. The scene itself underlines the script's main points a bit too emphatically, but Holm and Hawthorne have such marvelously expressive voices that I didn't really care. While listening to them, you might find yourself thinking, as I did, that George is a sweet man who deserves to be cured, but not until he's finished reading.
The Madness of King George. Directed by Nicholas Hytner.