“THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE”— A Meditation on Power

“The Madness of King George”

A Meditation on Power

Amos Lassen

“The Madness of King George” by Alan Bennett, based on his stage play of the same name is a meditation on power and the metaphor of the body of state, Bennett uses the real episode of dementia experienced by George III (now suspected as a victim of porphyria, a blood disorder) to show this. As he loses his senses, he becomes both more alive, and more politically marginalized while his Lieutenants adapt the rules to avoid a challenge to regal authority, raising the question of who is really in charge.

This is both a funny and oddly poignant play about the British monarch who lost America (and quite possibly his mind). Nigel Hawthorne, who originated the role of George on stage repeats it brilliantly in the film with a subtly calibrated performance. He undergoes emotional rages, bouts of dementia and sudden attacks of lucidity and these give the film it’s most amusing and touching moments (and an Oscar nomination for Hawthorne).

It was at the very end of the 18th century that George III sent his court and country into a whirl over his sudden, strange behavior. He raged, yelled obscenities, rambled endlessly, attacked his mistress (Amanda Donohoe) and was unable to control his bowels. While quack doctors took his pulse, observed his stools and induced hideous heat blisters all over his body, the king’s courtiers and associates split into two factions. The king’s supporters included Prime Minister William Pitt (Julian Wadham), who needed to reassure the House of Commons that all was well with the royals, and George’s protective, loving wife, Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren). On the opposing side were the indolent, ambitious Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) plotting with Pitt’s political adversaries to have himself declared Regent.

Hope for George’s recovery was with visiting doctor Willis (Ian Holm), a physician with innovative, pre-Freudian ideas about psychotherapy, who restrained the king and treated him like a child. We have questions about whether Willis’s method would work and if the king was indeed mad and they remain with us until the end of the film. However, what matters most in this satire, directed by Nicholas Hytner is the marvelous dialogue. Hawthorne gives the whole movie both a nutty and tender authority.

The prince, who had not counted on this recovery, pretended to have great concern and relief for his father’s condition and the king promised his wife he would be gracious to his son and think loving, noble thoughts but, of course, that does not happen.

In 1788, after fathering 15 children and looking after England’s best interests for years, the monarch was hit with a mysterious malady that played with his digestive system and resulted in some aberrant behavior. King George’s loyal supporters were quite shaken by his incoherent babbling, the loss of his regal bearing, and some unseemly fondling of the queen’s lady in waiting. He confided to his long-suffering wife, “I hear the words and I have to speak them. I have to empty my head of words. Something is not right.” Eventually, the king was handed over to Willis.

King George valiantly tried to handle the indignities of his malady and what he called “paradise lost” — the American colonies. Helen Mirren is affective as his loyal wife, and Rupert Everett is well suited to be the Prince of Wales who schemed to be declared regent during his father’s descent into madness.

We see how illness can turn one’s world upside down and test us. Thanks to Dr. Willis, the king returned to the throne and regained his old self. We feel that because of an illness, he became more soulful and a little bit wiser. 

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