One of the best films I saw this season is The Madness of King George, Alan Bennett's comic-tragic drama of the tormented king who almost lost his mind. This epic picture also announces the stunning debut of Nicholas Hytner, the Tony-Award winning director who dazzled Broadway audiences with his production of Miss Saigon and brilliant revivals of Carousel and An Inspector Calls, which I was lucky to see in New York last summer.
The Madness of King George confirms that power games, family scandals, and personal intrigues have always been integral to the British Crown, an institution at once revered and reviled by its citizenry. The effective strategy of Bennett, who adapted his play to the screen, is to demythologize the members of the Royal Family, without trivializing their lives in the silly, banal manner of a movie like The Lion in Winter.
The tale begins in l788, with King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) as a vibrant, robust leader, almost 30 years into his reign. He's happily married to his devoted wife, Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren), who has borne him 15 children, including the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) and the Duke of York (Julian Rhind Tutt).
To most English countrymen, the royal couple represents a desirable political order, based on a solid family life. Yet, almost from the very beginning, the King behaves in a strange, eccentric way. The king's veneer of respectability is unmasked in a series of brief scenes that disclose his "darker side," as he spews obscenities at the Queen, or sexually assaults her attractive lady in waiting. In one of many well-executed scenes, the King interrupts a royal concert with an arrogant demonstration of his own mastery of the keyboard.
Through his increasingly irrational conduct, it becomes evident that the king is ill, though the specific nature of his ailment is unclear. When the team of royal physicians, portrayed here as inept, barbaric buffoons, can't help, a strong-willed physician, Dr. Willis (Ian Holm), takes the king under his wing and subjects him to a strict psychotherapeutic discipline.
With the exception of a few excessively theatrical scenes, Bennett's poignantly touching script doesn't betray its stage origins. Though the filmmakers provide a sharply focused, behind-the-scenes look at King George, they don't neglect the broader political context, most notably the loss of the American colonies; some of the sharpest dialogue concerns the king's obsession with the rebellious colonies.
Reprising the role he created at the Royal National Theater and played extensively on tour, Nigel Hawthorne, whose performance is likely to garner an Oscar nomination, displays a wide range of emotion, passion and intellect in a role that sparkles with unusual ebullience. Under Hytner's guidance, the whole cast, comprised of the best actors in the British cinema today (Helen Mirren, Rupert Everett, Ian Holm), rises to the occasion.
A sumptuous look (cinematography is by Andrew Dunn) and lush production design contribute to an indelible sense of time and place. Big-scale, provocative, and yet always entertaining, The Madness of King George is as impressive as Kenneth Branagh's debut, Henry V, was in l989.