Triumph out of madness

Click to follow
NICHOLAS HYTNER'S movie of Alan Bennett's play The Madness of King George (PG) is more a character study than a drama. The plot is simple: King George III loses his wits, and then regains them. In Nigel Hawthorne's Oscar-nominated performance, the King travels the seemingly trivial, but in fact terrifying, distance from being a twit to a lunatic - and then back again to buffoonery. Bennett himself has credited Hawthorne with turning the King from being "a gabbling bore" into "a human and sympathetic figure". That is modest - Bennett's screenplay is full of shrewd insights into George, leads for Hawthorne to follow up - but it is also accurate. Like much of Bennett's work, the film is unfinished, a series of smart surmises rather than a structured whole. Hawthorne, with his detailed, sensitive performance, transforms Bennett's sketch into a regal portrait worthy of being hung at Windsor Castle.

The movie takes a while to get going, as if fatigued by the journey back to the late 18th century. The early scenes, at the court of the still sane George, are lab-oured. There is heavy emphasis on the crushing formality: the King and Queen (Helen Mirren) sit, while everyone else, including a pregnant lady, stands; the Prime Minister, Pitt (Julian Wadham), walks the length of the King's study backwards, in awkward deference. Bennett has little time for the etiquette of the day, but you wonder if his scepticism has not led him into anachronism. It is hard to believe in a court so bored and desultory. The tactics Bennett uses to deflate dignitaries are often cheap grandstanding devices to get the audience on his side. There are too many jokes cutting the monarchy down to size by simple scatology. We are supposed to split our sides at the King's struggle to break wind or at the sight of a chamber pot.

Soon enough Hawthorne takes over. He starts off ruddy-faced and belligerent, an interfering, battily well-informed monarch. He is a hands-on king, whether groping after his dear, departed colonies - or after a squirming Lincolnshire pig, which he correctly identifies as a Tamworth. Madness gathers gradually, more a losing control than a transformation. Bennett is fascinated by royalty's artifice, and the King's craziness is seen as an inability to sustain the performance of monarchy. He begins to rant and interrupt, to bully, and even assault. The bruised rosewood face is crowned by a lopsidedly loony smile. Yet the King is always conscious of his plight, helplessly and movingly aware that his body is out of balance. Hawthorne's bug- eyed fury rests on the edge of panic. Until, at last, he is broken, his grey, raggedly bearded face piteously drawn and fearful.

Hytner illustrates the King's descent into darkness in his lighting of the film, which begins in bright ceremonial colour and almost reaches monochrome in the grimmest scenes of mania. This is Hytner's movie dbut after 10 years' theatre and opera, and he clearly has an eye for the symbolic set-up. At one point the crazed King climbs a blue-lit stairwell, which, shot from above, looks like a sinister spiral of insanity. Like Kenneth Branagh in his two Shakespeare films, Hytner opens out and jollies along the text. As with Branagh, we have yet to see if he can create his own cinematic world. His likely next film, The Crucible, was once pencilled in for Branagh to direct.

Hytner makes the most of Bennett's heavily cut sub-plot. The Prince of Wales, who plans to usurp his deranged father, is played by Rupert Everett, with a booming voice and bulging tummy. He is shot, with his carousing mates, in smoky drawing-rooms, in which only his gilded, aquamarine waistcoat shines through the fumes of dissolution. Hytner has less success in bringing the politics of the day to life. The House of Commons looks stiff and unspontaneous, and its leading lights, Pitt and Charles James Fox (Jim Carter), are reduced to one-note caricatures, a dry stick and a saturnine schemer. You wouldn't believe they were more fascinating men than their monarch.

Bennett is more interested in pursuing his central themes, which are tied up with the King. The movie ends with George's declaration: "The King is himself again." And the play is a wry exploration of what constitutes kingship; what selfhood is; and the identity between the king's body and the body politic. As in his Single Spies, Bennett is teasing rather than revealing. At the climax, though, his gentle comedy dovetails with high tragedy, as the King and his Lord Chancellor (John Wood) read from King Lear. The King's fierce physician (a sterling Ian Holm) watches in puzzlement. But we watch in sheer delight the unlikely sight of John Wood playing Cordelia to Hawthorne's "fond, foolish old man". It makes a fitting climax to Hawthorne's exquisitely witty and deeply moving performance.

It would be a travesty if Haw-thorne were to lose the Best Actor award at tomorrow's Oscars to Paul Newman's ambling turn in Nobody's Fool (15). Newman's "Sully" is one of those ne'er-do-well, irresistible originals that you've seen a hundred times before and find all too easy to resist. He's a divorcee, with a gammy knee, a college-professor son, and a few other clichs to boot. Newman gives the part his gruff gentleness number, but it hardly stretches him (nor gets us any closer to knowing if there's anything to stretch). His best scenes are with Jessica Tandy, who, as his landlady, is, in her final performance, as graceful as ever. Other than that there's Bruce Willis in a nothing role as Sully's sour boss; and Melanie Griffith back doing what she's best at as a breathy ingnue. There's plenty of good-natured humour, but the movie is slight and sentimental.

In Drop Zone (15), Wesley Snipes plays an FBI agent seeking to foil a group of criminals who reach their targets by parachute. It's wonderfully preposterous stuff, with jaw-dropping shots of people jumping out of planes at 38,000ft. The plot is decent thrillerese. But the script is dismal. The crack world of sky-diving turns out to be full of whooping and shrieking maniacs, who leave you preferring to jump than stay.

After her droll dbut, Gas Food Lodging, Allison Anders'sMy Crazy Life (15) is a disappointment. Famous as a friend of Tarantino, Anders uses the same three-story structure as Pulp Fiction to tell her tales of Latino girls in Los Angeles, and has an ear for street demotic. She shows us female tenderness surrounded by brutality. But she has fallen in love with trite melodrama and gives a lack-lustre cast enough rope to hang itself and the film.

In the Review: David Thomson's Oscar predictions, page 25; cinema details, page 98.