The Madness of King George Reviews
If all of this sounds like sour grapes, then forgive me. Notwithstanding the Weinsteins' involvement, The King's Speech is a damn fine film, Colin Firth is a very good actor, and Tom Hooper is arguably one of the best British directors working today. However, it is arguable that this film would have not achieved such levels of success were it not for some form of royal precedent - which brings us, very nicely, to The Madness of King George.
Nicholas Hytner's adaptation of Alan Bennett's acclaimed play The Madness of George III may not have achieved the level of Oscar success accorded to The King's Speech. Despite a good showing at the BAFTAs, its only Oscar came for Art Direction. In a year dominated by Forrest Gump, Nigel Hawthorne had to watch Tom Hanks become only the second man after Spencer Tracy to win back-to-back Best Actor awards. But there are a number of key narrative similarities.
Both films revolve around an outsider or commoner coming into royal circles to assist the King (albeit against his will). There is a similar amount of political and philosophical opposition, in both cases coming mainly from Parliament and the royal doctors who seek to discredit said commoner. There is also a background of political struggle or brewing crisis, the solution to which lies in the personal story which forms the emotional foreground.
The similarities between the two are so close at points that you could accuse David Seidler of plagiarising Alan Bennett. Or perhaps the nature of the British royal family is such that these kinds of conflicts occur regularly, and that their history is one of rampant self-plagiarism. Even the most cursory glance at British history would suggest that such an observation is not entirely facetious. The monarchy's peculiar constitutional role provides a fertile ground for stories about the balance of power and the clash between reason and emotion. While filmmakers may have taken this into the realms of Oscar cliché, it is not entirely the fabrication of an idle screenwriter.
The key difference between the two films, is one of tone. The King's Speech may be written by a Briton, directed by a Briton and star the cream of British talent, but as a production it has a transatlantic feel; the involvement of the Weinsteins indicates a desire to appeal to the widest possible audience. But while Bennett's writing has always been populist and accessible, The Madness of King George is more willing to be whimsical and off the beaten track, at least in its penchant for lingual acrobatics.
Both Bennett's play and Hytner's rendering of it are examples of efficient, breezy storytelling. Once the key characters have been established, and the first signs of the King's infirmity revealed, the film really gets on with it, with not a bit of slack or pause for thought throughout its 102 minutes. The very speed at which Hawthorne delivers his speeches, cantering through pages like they were pithy one-liners, makes the whole thing pass very quickly.
Unlike many more low-key films, the whimsy of The Madness of King George generally works to its advantage. The King's English of the 18th century, at least as we perceive it, is more pompous, flowery and bizarre than that of his descendants. While George VI was required to be a public figure in the absence of any genuine powers, George III only greets his public at the beginning and end of the story.
Hawthorne is clearly enjoying himself in the title role, spitting out all the insults with immense relish and grinning his way through the "what-what"s. But this is not an example of a great actor mugging, like the late-period Laurence Olivier. The King's unusual utterances, which border on lunacy or delirium, are a witty contrast to the humour-free William Pitt and the puritanical determination of Dr. Willis. This portrayal serves to further reinforce the theme of the detachment and increasing irrelevance of royalty, both politically and medically.
The Madness of King George is at its strongest when it ties the central relationship to the political and constitutional struggle going on around it. The illness of the King would be a matter of inconvenience at any time, but it becomes a matter of national security in light of other issues facing Britain. There are calls for reform to the political system, led by Pitt's opponent Charles Fox, and as the King grows worse, Pitt's government seems weaker. America's independence and proclamation of republican democracy is a new and unquantifiable threat to the accepted order. And of course, unbeknownst to everyone, the French Revolution is just around the corner.
All of these events are handled with a light touch, as Hytner seeks to explain why the King's position is emblematic of the country as a whole. Both the doctors and the politicians are meddling with the institution of royalty - manipulating it for their profit and promotion, with no consideration for the fate of the King or the people he governs. Dr. Willis may show more desire and appetite to improve the King's manner, aiming, quite literally, to beat him into shape. But in the end he is as bad as the rest, promoting his values through the needless persecution of others.
Likewise, the manoeuvres to install Prince George as Regent are not acts of favouritism; it is a calculated move by the reformists to weaken the monarchy. Replacing a long-serving and popular king with a young philandering upstart would turn the public against the royal family, allowing Fox to seize momentum and reshape the constitution. The King's illness is a symbol of the declining old order, set in motion by people who cannot understand his predicament.
If all of this sounds heavy and Machiavellian, then it shouldn't, because The Madness of King George is joyously funny to watch. It's easy to derive sneering amusement at the absurd levels of propriety involved - for instance, the King's refusal to let anyone sit down in his presence. But there are many moments of genuine comedy which add to the light-hearted atmosphere. The funniest comes during the performance of Handel's 'Water Music', where Hawthorne jumps on stage to play the harpsichord and then beats up his son when the latter tells him to be quiet.
There are a couple of problems with the film. It begins to get repetitive about halfway in, as the various cures are found wanting: there's only so many times you can show a man screaming and being restrained. The ending is also a little unsatisfying, being the one point in the film which feels overly tailored to awards season. Its emphasis on the stability of the royal family may be in keeping with the overall theme, but its stability is of such note that it wanders into caricature, and we feel like nothing has changed.
The Madness of King George is a thoroughly enjoyable film which has survived the poisoned chalice of awards recognition. Nearly two decades on it remains an intelligent and engaging balance of the personal and political. Hawthorne carries the piece with great presence, aided by a simpering Rupert Everett, a fearsome Ian Holm, and Helen Mirren on top form in spite of a wayward accent. It's not perfect, but this and The King's Speech together would make a right royal double bill.
Originally titled The Madness of King George III but the "III" was dropped fearing that American audiences would think it a sequel.
Historically fascinating but suffers from hit & miss casting in the supporting roles. Helen Mirren is utterly fantastic, as always. Nigel Hawthorne's performance is Oscar worthy.
Though the story seems "a bit rushed" at times, this is a really good film. And to spite the subject matter, it is a mostly ammusing film.
Very strong performances by both Hawthorne & Mirren.
Some of the subplots are a bit flawed, and don't have much purpose.
Production Design is there in full force of course, and has the high budget cinematography to fit it. The acting is incredible throughout, and Ian Holm's stareoff technique is wholly convincing.
The film held my attention all the way through, which is always a huge accomplishment for a period royalty piece.