The Madness of King George is an eloquent, many-sided study of the effects of absolute power — which, as we know, corrupts absolutely. It’s alternately one of the funniest, saddest movies in recent memory. In 1788, a decade or so after we Americans so ingraciously refused our British hosts, King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) still obsesses about the country he has been denied. He has a way of pronouncing “United States” as if it were the name of a disloyal son who’s gotten too big for his britches. The king, however, has more on his mind than the States. That is to say, he has everything on his mind and nothing on his mind; the king is going mad, and the assembled officials and hangers-on of the court find it harder and harder to chalk up his ravings as normal royal eccentricities.
Watching Madness unfold, I kept thinking, If only Caligula had been made this way! The movie, directed by Nicholas Hytner from a script by Alan Bennett (adapting his play), gives the monarchy its due while suggesting that the power of God, placed in man’s imperfect hands, can derange the soul. The king dashes around, spewing “blasphemies,” chasing ripe young women. Who is to stop him? No one may even look at him directly, much less challenge him. For a while, Hytner and Bennett play the king’s robust instability for laughs. He could almost be Mel Brooks in History of the World Part I, who kept saying “It’s good to be the king” as bouncing breasts made his eyes pop. But the spectacle of a monarch with no self-control is not only funny. Gradually, the notion becomes disturbing; with surprising force, the movie slips into tragedy. The king is incontinent and pathetic; he embarrasses everyone around him, and he embarrasses himself.
Few movies — few works in any medium — can shift gears this way without leaving us in the lurch. As we move between laughter and pangs of sadness, we can become resentful of the manipulation. Madness, though, is amazingly supple and generally unsentimental, and it acquires depth when it moves into the viewpoints of those who love King George and wish him well, and even those who simply want a well-appointed throne. The kingdom is about to revert to the next in power — the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), the king’s son, a useless, dispassionate wretch. The moviemakers feed us bits of court intrigue as the duplicitous officials fantasize about everything that will be accompished once mad old George is out of the way. We’re offended at the idea of the king being supplanted — an unusual sentiment for Americans to have. But the king, as played by Hawthorne, is worth saving. Polished by two years in the role on the stage, Hawthorne’s performance is a study in extremes, and he pulls us into his emotions. When George’s wife, Queen Charlotte (the touching Helen Mirren), speaks wistfully of the great, gentle man he used to be, we believe her even though George is bonkers almost from the start. Even at the peak of his delirium, an odd decency comes through.
The movie turns into a gripping melodrama, and also a comic contest of wills, when the king’s supporters call in a big gun. Dr. Willis (Ian Holm), who runs an isolated farm for the insane, deduces that the king needs brute therapy. He must be torn down, made into a mere man, and then built up again. Holm, who even today looks as if he could head-butt his way through a brick wall, uses his pugnacious features to make Willis an intimidating authoritarian even when he isn’t saying anything. Forgetting himself and lapsing into babble, the king is silenced by Willis’ annihilating frown. This psychiatrist is up against the formidable obstacle of the very concept of monarchy. Willis’ outrageous notion is that the king must be responsible for himself before he can be a responsible leader. Our hopes for his recovery operate on many levels, and his journey back to lucidity is gradual and convincing.
The Madness of King George strikes notes of absurdity and horror, slapstick and anguish. By the end of this complex and satisfying movie, we respect the man on the throne, because we’ve seen the pressures that drove him from it and the hard work that restored him. Should we not give some slack to the human men and women who occupy seats of power? Would any of us sit there comfortably?