Directed By: Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Nigel Hawthorne, Helen Mirren, Ian Holm
Tag line: "His Majesty was all powerful and all knowing. But he wasn't quite all there"
Trivia: Helen Mirren won the Best Actress Award and Nicholas Hytner was nominated for the Golden Palm at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival
Prior to 1994’s The Madness of King George, everything I knew about England’s George III I learned from history books (and seeing as he was the reigning monarch during the American Revolution, those books weren’t always kind to him). The Madness of King George gave me a slightly better understanding of the man beneath the crown, but more than this, the movie shines a light on the political wrangling that resulted from his illness, revealing just how far people are willing to go when absolute power is on the line.
King George III (Nigel Hawthorne, reprising the role he played in the stage production) has ruled England for almost 30 years. While a loving husband to his Queen, Charlotte (Helen Mirren), the mother of his 15 children, George’s relationship with his eldest son, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) is contentious at best. A ruler who’s never afraid to speak his mind, George meets regularly with both his Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (Julian Wadham) and his Lord Chancellor Thurlow (John Wood) to discuss the current state of the nation, all the while lamenting the fact that America is no longer part of Great Britain. A normally robust man, George’s health takes a sudden turn for the worse following a severe stomach cramp, after which he begins to act erratically, shouting obscenities and behaving in a way that suggests he’s losing his mind. Despite the combined efforts of three different physicians, George’s mental health continues to deteriorate, thus clearing the way for Parliament’s opposition party, led by Charles Fox (Jim Catrer), to try passing a bill that would make The Prince of Wales the King’s Regent (essentially turning the country over to him). Realizing the king’s well-being has a direct impact on their own political careers, Pitt and Thurlow hire Dr. Willis (Ian Holm) to treat His Majesty, hoping his unorthodox methods will help the king regain his senses in time to save his crown.
Nigel Hawthorne is amazing as George III, delivering a performance that’s as hilarious as it is poignant; one morning, after rousing his servants out of bed at an ungodly hour, George takes off running in his nightgown, prancing through a pasture as his confused attendants, which includes new arrival Grenville (Rupert Graves), try to keep up with him. The king even makes passes at the beautiful Lady Pembroke (Amanda Donohue), the Queen’s Lady in Waiting, going so far as to force himself upon her. Along with exploring the king’s mental state, The Madness of King George shows us, in no uncertain terms, just how archaic healthcare practices were during this time. Dr. Warren (Geoffrey Palmer), who’s loyal to the Prince of Wales, tries drawing the king’s illness down to his lower extremities by way of a painful treatment involving candles and glass jars, while Dr. Pepys (Cyril Shaps) spends hours examining the king’s piss pot, hoping his urine and stool will shed some light on his condition.
The Madness of King George also delves into the political arena, at which point the movie takes its most disturbing turn. Having learned a little something about King George the man, we watch in horror as the Prince of Wales and Charles Fox join forces to discredit His Majesty; despite his father’s fragile psyche, the Prince organizes a concert in the hopes the king will make a public spectacle of himself, thus clearing the way for him to be named Regent. Even Pitt the Younger, who supports the king, is fighting for his own political survival (if the Prince becomes Regent, he’ll appoint Charles Fox Prime Minister, which means Pitt would be out of a job). As we bear witness to Parliament’s corruption and backroom dealings, we can’t help but feel an affinity for those who truly care about the King’s health, including the Queen, Dr.Willis, Lady Pembroke, and Grenville. Through it all, they continue working for the man himself, while everyone else concentrates on his crown and the power it provides.
An often funny, occasionally moving account of a ruler in turmoil, The Madness of King George was an eye-opening experience.