Film review: The Madness of King George (1994), directed by Nicholas Hytner
Based upon the Alan Bennett play, The Madness of King George is about King George III (Nigel Hawthorne). He seems happy as the ruler of the British Empire, he has a beloved wife in Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren in what I’m guessing is meant to be a German accent), and plenty of children … Sure, the oldest son and heir to the throne, George the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), can’t wait for his old dad to croak, and his younger brother Frederick the Duke of York (Julian Rhind-Tutt) is at his side saying posh things like “oh RAA-THER” in agreement.
It’s the 1780s and the friendly king goes from casually over-using the phrase “what what” to completely losing his mind. A priest in charge of a successful lunatic asylum is called in to help the king get better, but Dr Francis Willis (Ian Holm) has some rather barbarous methods.
Meanwhile, Prince George is trying to become Prince Regent, Queen Charlotte wants her husband back, and King George is happy to recite Shakespeare and babble incoherently to himself.
Also starring Rupert Graves as Robert Fulke Greville, Amanda Donohoe as Lady Elizabeth Pembroke, Julian Wadham as Prime Minister William Pitt, and Jim Carter as Charles James Fox.
That George IV, the Prince Regent of Regency novels, couldn’t wait for his father to expire is not new – I learned that off Horrible Histories! – but it’s interesting to see a take on the “mad king” that doesn’t involve the phrase “Look at me, I’m a kangaroo!” but something a little more … accurate. What George III actually suffered from is still debated, although I recently read that he might have suffered from bipolar disorder rather than porphyria, which is the generally accepted diagnosis. (His pee was blue, which is a sign of porphyria – but he was given some sort of medication based on a flower, where the side effect is that it may turn your pee blue.)
Whatever the truth of the king’s condition is (or was), The Madness of King George is an accessible look into British history. Sometimes entertaining, sometimes amusing, sometimes sad, sometimes barbaric, but always excellent. Well, as long as you don’t dwell on the Queen’s accent for too long!
Nigel Hawthorne played George III on stage – indeed, the screenplay was penned by Alan Bennet, the same person who wrote the play – and he does a great job of going through the shifting moods of the king. Rupert Everett looks as if he’s tucked a pillow under his clothes, so okay, he’s not the most convincing overweight prince ever, but he’s got the “oh get on with it, I’ve got better things to do” attitude down to a tee.
It would probably be good to point out that this isn’t a comedy, which you could be led to believe if you’ve only heard about the film in passing. Yes, the king goes positively bananas, but somehow, most of his antics are really not funny one bit. Tragic, yes, but not amusing, even when the servants are eagerly examining the king’s poo. When the queen is told she can’t see her husband, from whom she has never been apart in all their married life, she’s heartbroken. Definitely not funny.
As for whether or not you should watch this film, I think it depends. If you’re interested in British history or mental health, absolutely. If you’re wanting to see one of the actors, sure. If you’re just in it for the costumes, then perhaps not so much. It’s a fascinating film, but it’s perhaps not the sort of film you put on for the sake of entertainment on a Friday night.
4 out of 5 plots.