Madness of King George, The (United Kingdom, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

If the score of Immortal Beloved is remarkable, that of The Madness of King George is no less so. With the clear strains of Handel's "Water Music" and "Zadok the Priest" in the background, The Madness of King George ascends to a level that it might never have attained using a modern composer. The musical selections (made by George Fenton) are so perfectly and expertly interwoven into the film that one might easily assume the score had been specifically written for Nicholas Hytner's production.

Opening in 1788, more than five years after England lost her North American colonies, The Madness of King George relates a dark episode in the king's reign. Bothered by increasingly painful abdominal pains, George (Nigel Hawthorne) begins to act irrationally and belligerently. The doctors -- mostly a bunch of jumped-up quacks -- do nothing for him. His eldest son and heir, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) is eager to see his father declared mad so he can take over as regent. Ministers, retainers, and others at court begin to scheme how to get the most out of the king's indisposition. At last, when all appears lost, Prime Minister Pitt (Julian Wadham), aided by Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren); her Mistress of the Robes, Lady Pembroke (Amanda Donohoe); and Greville (Rupert Graves), one of the king's aides; sends for Dr. Willis (Ian Holm), a doctor of the mind with a reputation for curing dementia.

The Madness of King George is much more than a simple study of one man's descent into insanity. With a style that's more tongue-in-cheek than melodramatic, the film is always witty and occasionally satirical. The characterizations are flawless (as well as historically accurate), and the political wrangling of the Tories and Whigs (led by PM Pitt and Charles Fox, respectively) provide a deliciously complex backdrop.

Medical historians are generally agreed that the cause of George's madness was something called porphyria, an acute, intermittent, hereditary disease that is physical (rather than mental) in nature. The king's symptoms, including blue urine and gastric crises, match those of porphyria, although some have postulated that there may have been a secondary affliction, such as manic-depression, involved. Whatever the case, as this film illustrates, it's clear that there were times when George was unfit to rule.

Anyone who dislikes being poked by and prodded at by doctors will find some amusement in the petty disagreements within the small corps of physicians attending the king. One insists that blistering the skin is the only way to extract the bad humours that cause the madness. Another constantly takes the king's pulse. A third advocates examining the royal chamberpots -- the stool being "more eloquent than the pulse." Only Dr. Willis, with his hypnotic gaze, gives the impression of competence.

Without exception, the acting is top-notch. The four principles -- Hawthorne, Mirren, Holm, and Everett -- do fine jobs. Hawthorne's performance is especially noteworthy, allowing us to understand, and occasionally even sympathize, with a decidedly arrogant and dislikable personality. The supporting players, which include such recognizable faces as Amanda Donohoe and Jim Carter (as Charles Fox), are of equal quality.

Despite allusions to "King Lear", this movie's strength is in its story breadth, not its depth. A lot happens here, but few of the themes take root beyond their surface meaning. Adapted from the play "The Madness of George III", the film trims copious portions of dialogue, leaving behind a tightly-paced picture that has the feel of something created for the screen rather than for the stage. Certain subplots are watered down or eliminated, but what survives is more than enough to keep King George a source of solid entertainment.

Madness of King George, The (United Kingdom, 1994)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1995-01-13
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1