Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Madness of King George

Another of the movies I had the chance to DVR thanks to the various free preview weekends is one I'd wanted to see for quite some time: The Madness of King George. It's showing up again, tomorrow at 6:11 AM on 5StarMax, so as always I made a point of watching it to do a review on here.

Those of you who remember your American history classes will recall that during the Revolutionary War, the king of England was George III (Nigel Hawthorne). George would be one of the UK's longest-reigning monarchs, 60 years in total until his death in 1820. But as you may recall from the movie Becky Sharp or any adaptation of Jane Austen's novels, the last decade of that reign was actually a regency, as George III was mentally ill; the general, but not universal, belief is that he suffered from a neurological condition called porphyria that among the symptoms involves blue or purple urine.

As an avid reader I had known about the Regency and the porphyria hypothesis, but I didn't know until I first looked up the movie in anticipation of watching it that the movie is actually about a different regency crisis much earlier in the reign of George III. In 1788, not long after having lost the American colonies, and beset by other personal problems, George began to display signs of some mental illness or another. Of course, medical science wasn't quite so advanced in those days, which is why nobody really knows precisely what condition George was suffering from.

In any case, George's erratic behavior was beginning to alarm everybody around him, including his wife the Queen Consort, Charlotte (Helen Mirren), as well as political leaders like Prime Minister Pitt (Julian Wadham) or the Opposition Leader Fox (Jim Carter). Meanwhile, the king had a difficult relationship with his eldest son, also named George (Rupert Everett), who was first in line to succeed his father and had the title of Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales was well aware that if there were a regency declared, he would be named regent and effectively ruler of the country, so he supported Fox's bill to have a regency declared. It would also allow him to regularize his relationship with Mrs. Fitzherbert, whom Dad would never permit him to marry. Pitt, whom the king preferred, obviously didn't want this as a regency would likely also mean a snap election.

So, there's a lot of political wrangling going on in the background. But the movie also focuses on the medical treatment of the king. Doctors didn't have any good idea how to treat the king. Oh, they thought they had good ideas, but none of them were particularly good in practice considering the state of medicien as I mentioned earlier. The Prince of Wales is using his own personal physician, Dr. Warren (Geoffrey Palmer), to try to isolate the king, while one of the ladies-in-waiting suggests a different doctor who has some unorthodox ideas, Dr. Willis (Ian Holm).

Dr. Willis takes the King away to Kew, presumably to treat him but also because this furthers the Prince's desire to have the king isolated; even Queen Charlotte doesn't get to follow George to Kew. But the political intrigue is still going on, and one of the politicians actually has the audacious plan of going to see the King in person, just before the critical vote on the regency bill.

I don't know exactly how accurate The Madness of King George portrays the history. To be fair, I don't think historians can fully know what the end of 1788 was like for George III. But from what I've read on Wikipedia and elsewhere, the broad political points seem relatively accurate. As always with more recent period movies that can do a lot of location shooting, the movie looks fabulous, much more so than the stuff done on backlots during the Hollywood studio era. (The art direction won the Oscar) Hawthorne also does a fine job as George, and deservedly received an Oscar nominatinon; Mirren was also nominated in the Supporting Actress category.

The Madness of King George is a fine movie about a part of history I don't know that a lot of Americans know about. It's one you should definitely watch if you get the chance.

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