Film: The Madness Of King George

In late 1788, George III once again began showing signs of the mysterious mental illness that had first plagued him in the 1760s. Politicians, scenting the possibility of change, homed in for the kill. So, for that matter, did the king's much-disliked son and heir, the Prince of Wales. But in 1789, just as the Prince was on the verge of becoming Regent...the king made a miraculous (and mysterious) recovery.

A little over two centuries later, the playwright Alan Bennett turned this material into The Madness Of George III (1991), which proved to be an international hit. Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner adapted it to film as The Madness of King George (1994); the film had a successful art house run and earned an Oscar nomination (not to mention some very belated recognition) for its star, Nigel Hawthorne. Helen Mirren was also nominated for an Oscar as "Best Actress in a Supporting Role", for her portayal of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, George III's Queen consort.

Contemporary audiences noted some obvious similarities between the film's House of Hanover and the twentieth-century House of Windsor, especially when it came to frustrated Princes of Wales. However, the film is as much a response to King Lear as to modern royal foibles.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adipose Rex: Prince George. He just gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger throughout this film.
    • The Duke of York puts on weight during the film too.
  • Bearer of Bad News: Captain Fitzroy does this quite a lot, although he's clearly enjoying himself.
  • Being Watched: All of the royals are under constant, if supposedly invisible, observation, but Dr. Willis specializes in controlling people just by looking at them.
  • Berserk Button: The Prince of Wales is this to King George... regardless of his sanity or not. And when he finds out - once his wits are about him - that his worthless son had gotten married without permission...
  • Blackmail: Lord Chancellor Thurlow uses the Prince's marriage to blackmail Fox.
  • Bound and Gagged: In a cruel mockery of the coronation, George III is gagged and bound to a chair when he "misbehaves."
    • The whole treatment of King George in the hands of Francis Willis (and other doctors) is sadly Truth in Television. Obviously Willis was the first to use straightjacketing, and it made scandal at the time because it violated the person of the King. But when George went better and was declared cured Willis was acclaimed as a hero.
  • The Cameo: Several performers from the Royal National's original and touring productions have bit parts, including the original Sheridan (the pig farmer) and the touring Queen Charlotte (the madwoman at Willis' farm) and Prince of Wales (the Black Rod).
  • Composite Character: Chunks of Sheridan's and Dundas' dialogue in the play have been reassigned to Pitt and Thurlow.
  • Creator Cameo: That's author Alan Bennett as the nasal MP who starts speechifying just as George III rolls up in his coach.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Fortnum; Pitt, on occasion.
  • Dramatic Irony: The happy ending is not, in fact, a happy ending, because George III will go mad again (permanently so by 1810).
  • Dysfunctional Family: The Prince of Wales vs. Ma and Pa.
  • Empathic Environment: The King's madness tracks the changing seasons.
  • The Evil Prince: The Prince of Wales, although the film does convey his understandable frustration.
  • Eye Take: Pitt does this a few times, most notably when Willis confesses that he has never read Shakespeare. Sometimes combined with Fascinating Eyebrow.
  • Genre Blindness: Thurlow completely fails to realize that he's in King Lear.
    • Except at the end when he gets it ("If only the messenger had moved quicker!")... and rushes to Pitt and the rest of Parliament with the good news just before the Regency bill could be passed.
  • Happily Married: George and Charlotte, when George has his wits about him.
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: You might recognize King George as his descendant Elizabeth's most loyal civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby.
  • Historical Beauty Update: In the film, Queen Charlotte and Lady Pembroke. William Pitt the Younger, too, although that's a matter of casting instead of the script.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Virtually the entire cast of characters, except for Captain Fitzroy.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Bennett caricatures Fox's politics in order to exaggerate his (very real, very famous) rivalry with Pitt.
  • Honey Trap: To gain access to the King, the Queen sends Lady Pembroke off to seduce Captain Greville.
  • I Am the Trope:
    George: I am THE KING OF ENGLAND!
    Willis: No, sir. YOU are the PATIENT!
  • Impeded Messenger: Both averted and lampshaded in Thurlow's race to Parliament before the Regency bill passes.
  • It's What I Do: Fox calls Pitt out on being The Stoic:
    Fox: Do you enjoy all this flummery, Mr. Pitt?
    Pitt: No, Mr. Fox.
    Fox: Do you enjoy anything, Mr. Pitt?
    Pitt: A balance sheet, Mr. Fox. I enjoy a good balance sheet.
  • Jerkass: The Prince of Wales. He cares less about his father, his family, and the empire than his own indulgences.
  • The Lancer: Lady Pembroke, to Queen Charlotte. Even when George's madness has him assaulting Pembroke in public, the Lady still proves herself loyal to Charlotte. And the Queen knows it, which is why she entrusts the Lady to seduce Greville.
  • Mad Love: While mad, the King becomes obsessed with Lady Pembroke.
    King: Did we ever forget ourselves utterly, because if we did forget ourselves I would so like to remember. What, what?
  • Man Child: The Prince of Wales.
  • Meaningful Name: Fitzroy, a name originally given to a king's illegitimate child.
  • Meddling Parents: The King and Queen keep close tabs on what their adult children are doing. Too close, as far as the Prince of Wales is concerned...
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Of all the characters, Captain Greville is, by far, the nicest to George III; therefore, it should come as no surprise that the king fires him at the end of the film.
    • the higher ranking staff gets reassigned elsewhere, and some are paid off handsomely. No, the sad thing about Greville is that his 'relationship' with the Lady Pembroke ends and he figures out he'd been used by her to protect the King's reputation.
    • As Fitzroy explains, Greville was sacked because his served the King out of personal feeling of kindness rather than duty. He went beyond his duty as the King's Squire to help him by pity and he invested himself emotionally to the King's well-being. Cue his clumsy early comment in front of the King's doctor that The King is only a man, which probably also made him suspicious to some of his superiors.
  • Not Himself: One of the big themes—the King returns to sanity when he begins to "seem himself."
  • Oh, Crap: The Prince of Wales' response when the King shows up again, defusing the crisis.
    • The prince shows an even bigger Oh, Crap when his father approaches him in private and says matter-of-factly "Married, sir?" See Secret Relationship below.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The politicians have much more to do in the original play. Sheridan and Dundas, for example, are actual roles, not bit parts. For the film, Bennett cut back on the politics to achieve a tighter focus on the King's madness.
    • Bennett actually began chopping bits and pieces out of the political plot during the play's US tour.
  • Royally Screwed Up: By porphyria.
  • Secret Relationship: The Prince of Wales' marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert.
    • For those who slept through history class: Maria Fitzherbert was a commoner AND a devoted Catholic. Both points would prevent a current member of the British Royals from marrying someone like her even today (well, you could marry a commoner, but the looks of scorn from the titled nobility wouldn't be worth it). Worse yet: Royals can't get married - not then nor now - without permission from the Crown.
      • The movie hints that Mrs. Fitzherbert might have been the best thing in the prince's life and could have been a decent queen.
      • At least as far as the "marrying a commoner" part goes, the current second-in-line for the British throne has opted to do just that, with some small interest from the international press. They still can't marry Catholics, though.
      • And the Crown can get around the "marrying a commoner" bit by granting title to the bride or family. As long as they do it before the wedding...
  • Shout-Out: Fortnum exits to open a shop that sounds suspiciously like Fortnum & Mason. (It isn't—Fortnum & Mason opened in 1707, although the earlier Fortnum was also a royal footman.)
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: To King Lear. He uses Lear to get Thurlow aware of how it relates to what's happening to the King, and gets the side-switching minister back on his side.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Handel's "Zadok the Priest" (traditionally used at coronations) plays when the king is first bound to the chair.
    • The king also breaks down completely during a concert devoted to Handel's music.
  • The Stoic: Pitt.
  • Strawman Political: Republicanism (as in opposition to monarchical government, not the GOP) is the film's whipping boy.
  • Take That: The ending was an In-Joke aimed at the modern Royal Family at the time.
  • Turn Coat:
    • Thurlow twists and turns all over the place.
      Dundas: How long has he been hanging his hat there?
      Pitt: I don't know. But why not? He has his reputation to consider, after all. He has never been on the losing side yet. (from The Madness of George III)
    • Captain Fitzroy also jumps both ways, although he is more interested in the King as a position than he is in his own career.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: At the end, the King fires all of the footmen, along with Captain Greville, and begrudges the annuity he has to pay Dr. Willis.
    • He had to. The servants had seen the King at his worst, and keeping them on could have created some uncomfortable moments. It's implied most of them will get cushy jobs elsewhere.
  • Verbal Tic: What, what? Hey, hey!
    • The verbal tics are a sign that George is normal.
  • Viewers Are Morons: NOT an example, despite what many will tell you. There is persistent rumour that the title was changed from The Madness of George III to The Madness of King George because they thought American audiences would think it was a sequel. The change was for American eyes, but the intent was merely to make it clear to a country that's never had royalty that the movie was about a king. When English audiences see a first name followed by a Roman numeral, they immediately think 'king'. Americans have no such coding. Also, George III is the single person who Americans are most likely to think of if you mention "King George", for obvious reasons.
  • You Watch Too Much X: Pitt's anxieties about the King's likely fate prompt this response from Thurlow.
    Thurlow: You've been reading too many novels.