The theory goes that Americans will feel remote from this 1788 crisis in the life of George III — the king who lost the colonies and later his mind — since we’ve never seen one of our leaders go crackers in office. That’s a laugh even Richard Nixon might have appreciated. Comedy and tragedy cohere in this extraordinary film of Alan Bennett’s play. Nicholas Hytner, who directed the stage version of George in England and the United States, makes a potent film debut by setting off royal fireworks on a mere $8 million budget. Hytner’s sly direction can’t disguise the thin background characters engaged in familiar intrigue. But front and center is Nigel Hawthorne, repeating his stage role as the king and riding the film to glory.
The thrill of Hawthorne’s astounding performance is not something you want to miss. Just watch this distinguished actor (a Tony winner for Shadowlands) dig into the part of a formal monarch and father of 15 who is suddenly shitting his pants, blaring obscenities and running amok like Jim Carrey. Experts say the king suffered from porphyria, a metabolic imbalance whose symptoms resemble madness. Since the court quacks don’t know this, they blister the king’s skin and sniff his stools. His son the prince of Wales (a smarmy-to-the-max Rupert Everett) puts him in an asylum. Queen Charlotte (the splendid Helen Mirren), with the help of Lady Pembroke (Amanda Donohoe), brings in an unorthodox shrink. Dr. Willis, played with steely humor by Ian Holm, looks the king in the eye (a royal no-no), straps him down and ignores his protests. Hawthorne captures the scalding indignity of a proud ruler reduced to a helpless patient, especially when he reads a moving passage from King Lear that triggers his temporary return to sanity. Bennett and Hytner bring this strange interlude to engrossing life, but it is Hawthorne who finds the king’s grieving heart.