Oh, dear, I'm not supposed to go mad 'til 1800!
--Graham Chapman as King George III on Monty Python's Flying Circus
Most Americans know King George III of Britain, if at all, as the guy who taxed our butt-kicking forebears into revolt, and whom they eventually beat. Some may remember that John Hancock claimed his large signature on the Declaration of Independence was to help ". . . George in London read it without his spectacles."
The portrait painted by Nicholas Hytner's new film, The Madness of King George, is a more personal one, probably already familiar to Brits--it dramatizes one of this sovereign's several bouts with serious mental unbalance. George was in his early 20s when he became king in 1760, and at recurrent intervals throughout his 60-year reign, he became not just a little eccentric, but a completely-around-the-bend loony. Though the episode is not shown in the film, he is said once to have shaken hands with an oak tree, insisting that it was the king of Prussia. Modern historical and medical researchers tend to favor the theory that George's craziness may have stemmed from a hereditary metabolic problem named porphyria. Whatever its cause, the condition's result, as depicted in The Madness of King George, is a magnification, and a fun-house-mirror distortion, of the king's already dynamic personality. Hytner and screenwriter Alan Bennett seem to be suggesting that there's also an allegory for the British national character somewhere in their version of George. Historically accurate usage or not, it's unlikely that we're meant to read nothing into George's practice of referring to himself simply as "England." Bennett's script is an adaptation of his own play, The Madness of George III. The title, hilariously, is rumored to have been changed because people thought the movie was the third installment in a series they hadn't seen. Nigel Hawthorne, who was a hit in the role onstage, repeats it for the film. Apart from the lunacy, the character he and Bennett have created seems to be a good enough old sort, personally--fussy, garrulous and demanding, but also sort of endearing, like the kind of strict schoolteacher whom students become sentimental about. Early on, the king's chipper, plainspoken dementia is played largely for comedy, but as the story (set in the late 1780s) develops, it takes a turn for the serious. George is separated from his adoring wife (Helen Mirren) and forced to undergo a series of appallingly torturous "treatments" before he has the luck to fall under the care of a progressive--by 18th-century standards--mental-health specialist (Ian Holm). As George, Hawthorne gives a martinet's precision to his swift movements and barking voice in the early, manic scenes, so that when the addled king's pain breaks through about midpoint, it's very touching.
But The Madness of King George has a public side, as well. Hytner and Bennett take equal glee in showing us the ways in which George's illness made him a political pawn both for his friends, who included Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (Julian Wadham), and his enemies, who included his son and heir, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), a playboy and Whig ally. Domestically, George was no despot--because of his reputation as a good family man (and a vigorous anti-Catholic), he was unusually popular with the people. The prince wants to be made regent--he has a juicy moment noting that being prince of Wales "isn't a position . . . it's a predicament!" (One guesses the current holder of the title would agree.) He tries to leverage this with his allies in the House of Commons, using the madness as his pretext. Pitt, recognizing the value of having a popular figurehead in the control of the House of Peers, tries to stall the measure, and frantically searches for a cure to make the monarch presentable.
These intrigues are overlaid with others, like the prince's secret, illegal marriage to Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert (Caroline Harker) or the sexual monkeyshines between the king's handsome equerry (Rupert Graves) and one of the queen's sexy ladies in waiting (Amanda Donohoe). The acting--particularly Everett's as the foppish, sneering prince--is high quality, as is Andrew Dunn's handsome cinematography. The film bustles along more or less entertainingly for most of its length.
I'm not sure, however, that Hytner and Bennett ever make the two plot lines--George's struggle to regain his wits and the political struggle that his madness initiates--jell on a thematic level. Because of the humanity of Hawthorne's performance, it's impossible not to sympathize with George. Yet there's no mistaking that if he triumphs over his illness, it's a political win for the perpetuation of aristocratic power. If the odious prince wins, the commons win.
The filmmakers seem aware of these ambiguities--they drop in a few ironies about the difference between what's seen as madness and the rigid social roles George and his family must play. When he's well, a more entrenched kind of madness takes over his life. But this isn't enough to make this interesting picture quite add up. The Madness of King George holds the attention, it grips and amuses, but when it's over, it leaves behind the sense of having missed making a point, by inches.