FILM : There's method in his madness

Adam Mars-Jones applauds Nicholas Hytner's attentive translation of The Madness of George III from stage to screen
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The Independent Culture
With The Madness of King George, Nicholas Hytner joins a group so select that it hardly exists, of theatrical directors who successfully cross over into cinema by way of filmed versions of plays they directed on stage. This isn't, though, a film record of a famous production but an unforced rethinking (much helped by Alan Bennett's screenplay) for the new medium.

The camera allows us to see the ramshackle side of ceremony, the crown being buffed on a sleeve before a state occasion and tossed by one attendant to another after it. When not actually on ritual display, the royal party goes at a canter. Courtiers slump with relief when the royals move on, and no wonder. The lead-up to the King's first appearance is executed with a certain amount of regalia-fetishism - close-ups of a garter being fastened, and so on - so we are led to expect that the toddler Princess who approaches him in his splendour will be rebuffed or at least frightened (like Hector's son in the Iliad alarmed by Dad's plumed helmet). But no, being the King is not the same thing as being self-conscious, and the monarch picks up his daughter very happily. Before his madness, he inhabits the rules so completely that he only rarely needs to think of them.

Nigel Hawthorne, repeating his stage role as the King, is made to look ruddy, almost apoplectic of face, as if to suit the nickname of Farmer George. The King is not so very far in his flesh tone from the Tamworth pigs he admires so heartily on an estate farm.

While he is well, it is forbidden to meet his eyes, and a doctor can only conduct a physical examination if the king suggests one; but once he is defined as mentally unwell, the royal flesh is as sacred as bacon. He is given over to a clergyman-turned-doctor called Willis (Ian Holm) who submits him to a sort of Pavlovian training, restraining him whenever he disobeys orders until he learns to restrain himself.

As the King's wits move into eclipse (he complains that there is a fog before his eyes), Hytner uses a twilight palate of misty spectral blues, the blues perhaps of a Fuseli painting. The locations too become Gothic, a vast spiral staircase seen from above, an immense roof by moonlight. To dispel these vapours, he is moved to a purgatorial Kew, where outlines are clearer but bleaker, and the atmosphere is so cold that his attendants wear greatcoats and gloves indoors. Discipline will freeze him out of his madness.

Willis's idea that being contradicted and stood up to "elasticates the spirit", so that royals are driven mad by a surfeit of deference, seems to have some appeal to Alan Bennett, although Willis is responsible for the supreme moment of horror in the film. "I am the King of England," protests George III, and Willis replies: "No sir, you are the patient." He is strapped into a restraining chair that parodies the throne while Handel bursts out on the soundtrack, Baroque music at its most dogmatically serene and celebratory. It's like a Coronation in blasphemous inversion, with a gag instead of a crown.

If the film has a fault, it is that though we care about what happens to the King at every moment of it, sometimes we are also caring in different ways about the Crown and Country. The ambiguity of tone is perhaps not helped by having Greville (Rupert Graves), a newly appointed equerry, serve as our stand-in in the early scenes. He is tender to the King throughout, and is rewarded with dismissal, while those who kept a greater distance are promoted. It is explained to him that the King's memory of him can only be in terms of someone who took liberties. On stage, this would be a fleeting irony (since Greville would not have served as our point of view), but on the screen it seems bitterly unfair, and makes us repent of our kingly sympathy.

It's rather the same with Willis. It is suggested that the King was cured more by time than by any therapeutic discipline, but it is also true that without Willis he might have lost control of the realm more permanently. The moment when the King is recovered enough to treat Willis like a servant is a painful one. If Willis's success with the patient - or at any rate lesser failure, compared to his medical rivals - was based on treating the King as a man like any other, why do we cheer when he resumes his full august inhumanity. Bennett spikes the screenplay with occasional republican jibes, but more out of mischief than conviction.

An early scene, of the King wandering distracted through Windsor Great Park, sounds the Lear theme which culminates in a reading of the play at Kew. This is a supremely theatrical scene, which Hytner successfully films, rather against the odds, by knowing just when to get in close to Hawthorne's face. This actor shows himself equal to the whole Lear spectrum of rage, grief, tenderness and humour, and reaps the added benefit of a happy ending.

It is a shock to hear Helen Mirren, playing Queen Charlotte, described as "a good little pudding", even as a supreme marital endearment, but she is well cast, despite her lack of the pudding qualities. As her husband crumbles, she turns on the world a smile that is a work of art, and in her pain we see her eyebrows arch, both the painted and the real.

Even Rupert Everett's annoying charisma is put to good use. His face is palpably dissolute, even though it is hardly the face of a person so constantly rebuked by his parents for fatness. This Prince of Wales puts in regular gym sessions between dissipations. "What must I do to be taken seriously?" he drawls, presiding over a table bearing a half-excavated stilton like a hollow tree stump, and the answer must be, do more good stuff. More stuff like this.