Movie Monday: The Madness of King George (1994)


Today’s special Movie Monday is a crossover: we are not only talking about the history of the film here, but my wife Allison is talking about it on her tumblr, only from a cleanliness-and-organisation type of perspective. 

So, sadly, the story about it being changed from “The Madness of George III” to “The Madness of King George” because Americans would feel like they couldn’t see it if they hadn’t seen parts I and II seems to be a legend, but it was changed to be more appealing to the American market, so. Anyway, the film: 


I mean, OK, first off, this is a good film. Good performances, all that. Nigel Hawthorne is particularly good, but it’s got a lot of good people in it. 

Second, it’s about the Regency Crisis of 1788, and it gets the gist of it mostly — the king went a bit mad, Parliament bickered about whether to make the Prince of Wales regent, Pitt stalled like a maniac, and just as the Regency was about to go through, the king regained enough sanity to return to work, pipping the Prince. A lot of minor details are omitted — like when the crisis hit, Fox was on holiday and couldn’t be got hold of, then as soon as he came home he fell ill, so things dragged on in that old-fashioned way. The events that the film portrays as taking some nebulous amount of time took months — from October 1788 until February 1789. 

Third, it’s very good. OK, I said that already. In some ways, its goodness is kind of its downfall — basically, I mean that the film is much more concerned with the personal stuff relating to the monarch, and Nigel Hawthorne pretty much kills it. It’s even kind of based on Hawthorne’s stereotype, in that he starts off as kind of a comic figure, letting you settle into the predictable ‘oh it’s Nigel Hawthorne’ feeling before ripping off the Band-Aid. 

It does have one big weird thing, which is the bit where George III is all cranky about recognising that the US is a country — but that had already happened several years before. He received an American minister — John Adams in fact — in 1785. So that’s a bit out of whack. But it’s a relatively minor point. 

And then … what I like about the film is the ambiguity and weirdness of it all. It keeps setting up traditionally redemptive stories but then subverting them. So the king is a bully; Ian Holm comes in to treat him with his own form of bullying, but under his care the King heals … and then once he’s back on the throne he pays Holm a big retainer and tells him in no uncertain terms to piss off. Rupert Everett’s Prinny is all vacillation and deviousness and so on, and at the end George starts talking some guff about love until like 30 seconds after he sees him, at which point he gets all Hanoverian-severity on a fool. Charles Fox is simultaneously the Prince’s unctuous toady and a man who sees how completely futile the whole system is, and Pitt, who spends the whole film slapping a mask of impassivity over the fact that he’s shitting himself, sees it as well. All the loyal sidekicks who’ve built up a ragged camaraderie during the madness are let go — but although we get the madness-as-holiday idea, with George giving them piggyback rides and reading Shakespeare with the Lord Chancellor, we also clearly see the fear and pain and confusion that the king’s mental state causes, not only to himself and his family. 

And of course, we all know that the story ends with him going mental again and Prinny taking over anyhow. 

So it keeps establishing these things that should be conventional Hollywood therapy-redemption stories, but then dropping some cold-hearted 18th-century thinking on them. It is helped by a supporting cast of doctors and politicians who look like Hogarth (or more appropriately Gillray?) cartoons.Image 

Those guys look amazing. 

So yeah. 

Is there a word for the writing technique where writers gin up a historical detail that’s so weird and implausible that you assume it must be true but then it turns out to be complete invention? I don’t have an example to hand, but you know the kind of thing I mean. 

Anyway, you should watch it; it’s pretty good. It simplifies the history, but there’s something … weirdly unclear and unsatisfying about it, and that’s what I like. 

Also, when it came out there were reviews which called this breathless summary a “dry history lesson”. Those people should be hanged.

Movie Monday: The Madness of King George (1994)

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