Movie Review: The Madness of King George (1994)

Title: The Madness of King George
Release Date: 28 December 1994
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Production Company: Channel Four Films | Close Call Films

“Do it, England, do it!”

I saw this movie when it came out when I was in college at a local arthouse theater. Having studied history, particularly 18th-century history, I remember the movie being particularly funny.  But it still holds up decades later when I’ve forgotten all that historical detail. It features terrific acting and a scriptful of memorable dialogue.  Oh, and a lot of poop and piss jokes.

The Madness of King George is based on the historic events of 1788-1789 when King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) begins behaving erratically and seemingly lost his senses.  His Prime Minister, the unflappable William Pitt the Younger (played with dryest delivery by Julian Wadham) and his wife Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren) work to help him get better and keep up appearances for the ongoing affairs of state.  But his eldest son George, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), sees the opportunity to seize power as the king’s regent along with the leader of the opposition in Parliament, Charles Fox (Jim Carter)

A series of doctors prove useless in curing the King, even making him worse with their misguided medical practice.  Eventually, George is put in the care of the stern Dr. Francis Willis (Ian Holm) who has more modern ideas of treating mental illness, albeit still barbaric.  The film shifts focus between the battle of wills between Willis and George and the ongoing Regency Crisis in Parliament.  In fact there’s a lot going in the movie I’d forgotten about which efficiently develops about a dozen different characters’ stories.  Some great performances come from a youthful Rupert Graves as the King’s attendant Captain Greville, who serves as a kind of point of view character, and Amanda Donohoe as Lady Pembroke, the Queen’s Lady of the Bedchamber.

The movie works on many levels.  It’s a period drama with the eye for costumes and settings that British filmmakers bring to such things. It’s a satire and a bit of a farce on the precarious nature of monarchical rule.  It’s a palace intrigue.  It’s a stunning portrait of mental illness and the failure of medicine to address its causes.  And it’s even a romance, as the chemistry between George and Charlotte is heartfelt. Hawthorne’s performance is remarkable, showing vulnerability, but also never making George too sympathetic as he’s seen to be arbitrary even when sensible.

The finale of the film where the King instructs the Prince that they must be a “model family” makes a literal demarcation of the  gradual process by which the English monarchy transitioned from ruling the country to serving as a figurehead.  It’s also possibly a dig at the dysfunction of the present-day royal family.  You could watch this as a triple-feature with The Favourite and The King’s Speech for a full dose of British royal shenanigans, although I like this film the best of the three.

Rating: ****1/2