Friday, April 4, 2014

The Madness of King George


The cruise liner, Norwegian Sun, refused to stay in one place underfoot and I was forced to remain in my cabin under the doctor until just prior to my concert. When it was time for me to sing, I was pumped full of anti-nauseants and the captain was given strict instructions to steam in nice quiet circles for the duration of my set. Convenient buckets were placed in the wings backstage, just in case, as I donned my flawless royal blue sequined gown with the sweetheart neckline and the full train. I was preceded onstage by a warm up act, some ex-beauty queen from Richfield, Minnesota who, I must admit, had the most incredibly tasteful wardrobe. I just had to get the name of her designer.

At nine PM, I sashayed out onto the stage in the Stardust Lounge and launched into my When a Man Loves A Woman concert. Halfway through the second number, I realized that the entire audience was male. Darling Joseph, my manager, had neglected to inform me that this was a gay cruise. Gay men tend to be some of my strongest admirers but I did feel a little odd singing a set of heterosexual love ballads to them. They didn't seem to mind though, I got a roaring ovation. Mingling with the crowd afterwards, I heard such loving remarks as "a delightful campfest".

The boat was moving again, so I returned below to my portable DVD player and popped in the 1994 film, The Madness of King George, featuring an Oscar nominated turn by Sir Nigel Hawthorne in the title role. I had not caught this film in the theater on its initial release and was looking forward to it immensely. I have a great fondness for the period, having once played the female lead in a short lived stage musical adaptation of the life of Thomas Gainsborough.

The film covers the years after the American and before the French Revolutions, when the powers of European monarchies were at their zenith. George III (Nigel Hawthorne), now about sixty and a devoted family man, had been dealt a humiliating defeat with the loss of the American Colonies in the revolutionary war some years previously. As the film opens, he and his devoted Queen, Charlotte (Helen Mirren), are preparing to open parliament in 1788, with a bevy of the fifteen royal children in attendance. The Royal Equerries, led by Greville (Rupert Graves), spit polish the crown jewels and in general see to the King's every need. The Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) and his younger brother, the Duke of York (Julian Rhind-Tutt), are on the outs with their father, being consigned to empty ceremonial roles with no real meaningful work to be accomplished. Prime Minister Pitt (Julian Wadham) schemes in parliament for more democratic reforms opposed by the King.

This delicate balance is soon upset when the King's mental faculties start to slip. Soon he is speaking in nonsense, delirious with paranoia, capering through the countryside in his nightshirt, leading the royal orchestra in a crazed way, and, in general, imitating Daffy Duck on speed. This disastrous turn of events must be kept secret. There is talk of a regency. The courtiers and princes' factions close around the King separating him from the Queen and Dr. Willis (Ian Holm), attempts to cure his madness with cupping, forced purges and the other idiotic maneuvers of medicine of the period. Basic empirical evidence, such as the blue color of the royal urine, is ignored as it doesn't fit in with accepted medical theory of the time.

Modern physicians believe that George III suffered from porphyria, a genetic disease in which precursors to hemoglobin are incorrectly manufactured and accumulate in the body. It is intermittent, relapsing, and cardinal signs include a bluish or purplish cast to the urine as the toxic compounds are excreted, and episodes of delirium as the same compounds interfere with normal neural function. The Royal House of Stewart, in Scotland, also had members with porphyria, especially during the 15th century and like hemophilia, several centuries later, the disease markedly altered political history in Europe.

Nigel Hawthorne gives a performance of enormous breadth and complexity as the addled monarch. In playing madness, many actors, especially Americans, tend to overplay physical tics and speech patterns. Hawthorne finds the delusions and delirium within; he also finds the humor in the situations and lines. This leads to his walking a very fine line between vigorous and pathetic and it's a tribute to his skill that he never has a misstep. Hawthorne played the part on stage for some time, prior to the film, perfecting every nuance and his Oscar nomination was well deserved. Helen Mirren, as the devoted Charlotte, has less to do, but still brings memorable moments to their brief scenes together, especially their tender bedroom scenes, away from the prying eyes of the court and the smothering etiquette. As the Prince Regent, later George IV, Rupert Everett is supercilious and trapped in a bad fat suit. His part exists more as plot device than as character, at least as he plays it, and it might have been better had it been cast with less of a name. Ian Holm, as always, remains one of the finest British character actors working.

The visual look of the film is sumptuous in the extreme. Filmed on many of the actual locations with loving attention to period costume and detail, many shots resemble canvases by Constable, Reynolds or Romney brought to vivid life. The whole affair is helped along by George Fenton's score, utilizing themes from Handel (especially the Water Music and the Royal Fireworks Music) which also firmly fix the 18th century ambiance. This was Hytner's first outing as film director, recreating his stage success. His cast and the literate script by Alan Bennett (one of the four original cast members of Beyond the Fringe) gave him a stunning result.

The DVD has good picture and sound transfer. There are no commentaries, shorts or other major extras included.

Out of control royal children. Equerries in nightshirts. Powdered wigs. Harpsichord playing. Pregnant courtier. Royal bondage. Stool addicted physician. Gratuitous invalid royal marriage subplot.

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