“The Madness of King George” confirms that power games, family scandals and personal intrigues have always been integral to the British crown, an institution at once revered and reviled by its citizenry. The effective strategy of Bennett, who adapted his 1991 play for the screen, is to demythologize the members of the royal family without trivializing their lives in the silly, banal manner of other works like “The Lion in Winter.”
The tale begins in 1788, with King George III (Hawthorne) a vibrant, robust leader, almost 30 years into his reign. He’s happily married to his devoted Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren), who has borne him 15 children, including the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) and the Duke of York (Julian Rhind-Tutt).
Nicholas Hytner, the Tony Award-winning director who dazzled Broadway with his production of “Miss Saigon” and brilliant revival of “Carousel,” makes a stunning screen directorial debut in “The Madness of King George,” Alan Bennett’s comic-tragic drama of the tormented king who almost lost his mind. A towering performance by Nigel Hawthorne, a stellar supporting cast and a boldly lavish production should make this costume epic intriguing viewing for the upscale audience that supported Goldwyn’s 1989 “Henry V,” Kenneth Branagh’s debut.
To most English countrymen, the royal couple represents a desirable political order, based on a solid and stable family life. Yet here, almost from the beginning, the king behaves in a strange, eccentric way. He is the kind of energetic leader who insists on knowing — and interfering in —
every aspect of his monarchy.
The king’s veneer of respectability is shattered in a series of brief scenes that disclose his “darker side,” as he spews obscenities at the queen or sexually assaults her attractive Mistress of the Robes, Lady Pembroke (Amanda Donohoe). In one of many well-executed, disturbing scenes, the king interrupts a royal concert with an arrogant demonstration of his own mastery of the keyboard.
Through his increasingly irrational conduct, it soon becomes evident that the king is ill, though the specific nature of his ailment is unclear. When the team of royal physicians, portrayed here as inept, barbaric buffoons, can’t help, a strong-willed physician, Dr. Willis (Ian Holm), takes the king under his wing and subjects him to a strict psychotherapeutic discipline.
With the exception of a few excessively theatrical scenes, Bennett’s poignantly touching script doesn’t betray its stage origins. Helmer Hytner moves the action smoothly from tightly controlled indoor settings to gloriously staged outdoor scenes, such as one showing the hyperactive king rampaging through the fields of Windsor at sunrise with his hysterical staff behind him.
Though Bennett and Hytner provide a sharply focused, behind-the-scenes look at King George, they don’t neglect the broader political context, most notably his loss of the American colonies. Some of the sharpest dialogue concerns the king’s obsession with the rebellious territory; “Give us the wisdom of America,” says an observer in a line that bears contemporary relevance.
Reprising the role he created at
the Royal National Theatre and played extensively on tour, Hawthorne displays a wide range of emotion, passion and intellect in a performance that sparkles with unusual ebullience. Dominating every scene, Hawthorne brings to his complex part a strong screen presence, light self-mockery and pathos that set divergent moods throughout the film.
Under Hytner’s guidance, the cast, composed of some of the best actors in British cinema, rises to the occasion. Mirren is most touching as the devoted queen who is denied access to her husband, Everett is outright marvelous in the juicy role of the conniving son who schemes to become a regent, and Holm shines as the unconventional psychiatrist.
Boasting a rich period look, almost every shot is filled with a handsome, emotionally charged composition. Andrew Dunn’s sumptuous lensing, Ken Adam’s magnificently resourceful production design, Mark Thompson’s opulent costumes, Tariq Anwar’s vibrant editing and George Fenton’s evocative score reflect an alert intelligence, all contributing to an indelible sense of time and place.