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Film / The Madness of King George

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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 portrayal 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.
    • The Duke of York puts on weight too.
  • Assassination Attempt: An early scene depicts the King descending from a podium, where he is set upon by a madwoman, who attempts to stab him. His Majesty is remarkably composed during this affront, and is unhurt by it. He even gently chides the woman that a fruit knife is a poor weapon, which is what the dotty widow used. The scene establishes that King George was observant and rational during the early stages of his affliction; this lucidity is slowly eroded as his condition worsens.
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  • 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...
  • Bittersweet Ending: The King is cured and the Prince of Wales is thwarted - but Greville and all the loyal retainers are sacked, Greville learns Lady Pembroke was just using him, and anyone who knows their history will be aware that George will have another relapse and be permanently mad by 1810, meaning his son will become Prince Regent in any case.
  • 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 a scandal at the time because it violated the person of the King. But when George grew 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.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The first time we see the king proper, he's all done up in his ceremonial robes, the very picture of royalty...and then he picks up, comforts and kisses one of his young daughters, before turning to face the day with a huffing breath and saying "Right."
  • 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.
  • Friend to All Children: George dotes on his younger children (the older ones turned out to be disappointments and receive nothing but scorn) and cheerfully joins in a game of cricket with some children and frolics around with them with no regard to his rank.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Manchild: The Prince of Wales.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: King George III mentions that he and Queen Charlotte have had 15 children.
  • 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 and his 'relationship' with the Lady Pembroke ends and he figures out he'd been used by her to protect the King's reputation.
  • 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, which runs in the family.
  • Secret Relationship: The Prince of Wales' marriage to Mrs. Fitzherbert, which has to be kept secret because British royals can't get married without permission from the Crown, and there's no chance in hell of permission being given in this case because Mrs. Fitzherbert is both a commoner and a devoted Catholic. (For an heir to the British throne, marrying a commoner was obviously frowned upon, and marrying a Catholic was actually forbidden by law between 1701 and 2013.)
  • 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.
  • Spit Shine: Some servants do it with the royal crown.
  • 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.
    • Captain Fitzroy also jumps both ways, although he is more interested in the King as a position than he is in his own career.
  • Verbal Tic: What, what? Hey, hey! The verbal tics are a sign that George is normal.
  • White-and-Grey Morality: The Prince of Wales and Charles Fox want to get the king out of the way and create a new regime, but they're doing it for understandable reasons: the prince wants to be able to marry his Catholic mistress which would otherwise never be allowed, and Fox wants to form friendlier relations with America and abolish the slave trade.
  • 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.


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