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This movie won an Oscar for Best Art Direction.

‘The Madness of King George’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 27, 1995

For reasons unknown even to the best physicians in the king's service, His Majesty's personal plumbing is malfunctioning. In fact, his water seems to have turned an alarming shade of blue.

Why, you ask, should a critical assessment of "The Madness of King George," Nicholas Hytner's riotous adaptation of Alan Bennett's comedy about monarchal frailty, begin with a visit to the potty? Because Britain continues to lead the world in scatological farce and Bennett is its poet laureate -- its Prince of Poo. In "The Madness of King George," physicians walk about swirling the king's "motions" in a bowl, sniffing his eliminations analytically for the origin of his distress. His wind is a matter of national concern.

What's worse, the king's physical infirmities seemed to have seeped into his brain, poisoning his reason to such a degree that everyone is forced to agree that George William Frederic, king of Great Britain, Ireland and Hanover, is round the royal bend.

Considering the rather informal approach that the royals have historically taken toward the matter of sanity, for most the question would be, "How can you tell?" Day after day, His Royal Highness "What whats?!" his way through his kingly duties, kissing pigs and babies and putting names to faces like a glad-handing old pol. At first he seems merely eccentric, mixing Shakespeare with torrents of obscenities. But when his behavior suddenly turns more extreme, his son, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), and his political allies see an opportunity to declare the old man incompetent so that the debauched, scheming prince can take over as regent.

In an earlier Bennett screenplay, "A Private Function," the protagonist was a lowly pig with the regal hauteur of a pasha; here, it's the high-born hero who has a touch of the piggy in him. Somehow, though, this frail figure is an immensely likable -- and, at times, deeply moving -- character. With his powdered wig plunked down on his head like a wilted pancake, Nigel Hawthorne's George III is like Job as Buster Keaton might have played him. The scenes in which he dashes through Windsor Castle, riding the backs of his aides and sliding down banisters, are side-splitting bits of bawdy physical comedy. But Hawthorne, who won a Tony for his portrayal of C.S. Lewis in the stage production of "Shadowlands," is equally affecting in his mellower, more intimate scenes.

The best of these come during his private moments with his wife, Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren), a stalwart, caring woman who George married out of political expediency, but remained faithful to for more than 50 years. (She also bore him 15 children.) At the end of every day, Mr. King and Mrs. King -- as they affectionately refer to each other -- pull on their bedclothes and shake off the anxieties of office like any other loving old couple, tickling and giggling themselves to sleep.

For Bennett, the extent of old king's insanity is a matter of some debate. Compared with the others at court, he seems a paragon of virtue and sense. To some, proof of his "madness" lies in his insistence on remaining loyal to the same woman, in his passion for the arts, his sense of morality and duty and his dedication to his children. To others, the king's derangement is a case of simple heartbreak over the loss of his beloved colonies -- his perfect paradise -- in America. In fact, King George's infirmities were most likely the result of porphyria, a metabolic imbalance that produces the symptoms of psychosis and that plagued him, off and on, until his death.

Much of the comedy here comes out of the bumbling attempts made by the king's physicians to return him to health. Employing everything from purgatives to bloodletting to blistering, the doctors torture the monarch to the point that the cure becomes far worse than the disease. His advisers insist that during His Majesty's illness, the queen be kept away from him -- adding loneliness to his list of ailments.

After failing in all their schemes to cure the king, his confidants resort as a final measure to an odd character named Dr. Willis (Ian Holm), whose techniques bear a closer resemblance to modern psychiatry than to the crude medical practices of his day. Whether Willis cures him or his senses return on their own is never definitively established. Either way, George is ultimately able to demonstrate to the people that he is happy. "After all," he says, "that is why we are here."

The Madness of King George is rated R for language and bawdy situations.

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