The Madness of King George

I’m actually kind of partial to the films of 1994 because it was the 1995 Oscar ceremony, honouring the best of ’94, that got me hooked on all things Oscar. In honour of my upcoming 20th annual Oscar party, I decided to check this movie out- one of the few that I still hadn’t seen from that year.

In The Madness of King George, Nigel Hawthorne plays King George II during his struggle with mental illness (never so-called in the film for obvious reasons) in the late 1780’s. The pretty much always awesome Helen Mirren plays his wife Queen Charlotte who has no idea what to do with him. “It was something he ate!” she yells at no one in particular while the King derails a concert by storming the stage swatting away anyone trying to assist him.

The Madness of King George is quite well-done until the photo finish ending where the king races to Parliament to prove that he’s sane again before his son the Prince of Wales, played as a complete dickwad by Rupert Everett, can be declared Regent. I still have mixed feelings about this movie though, mostly about Dr. Willis, played by Ian Holm (old Bilbo Baggins). On the one hand, his theorizing about power’s connection to madness is interesting. All mad men think of themselves as kings, he muses. What fantasy then does a mad king take refuge in? It’s the feedback we get from others, including the insults and constructive criticism that shapes us so how can you keep a grip on reality when everyone around you looks to you as royalty? It’s a good question worth thinking about. Although, with medical hindsight being 20/20, they seem pretty sure now that the king’s madness was due to a rare blood disorder, not believing his own hype.

Dr. Willis’ answer to this is behavioural modification, basically meaning that the patient will be put in restraints every time he misbehaves (e.g. talking crazy, not eating, swearing etc.). Ok, I know that this is 1788 but, working in mental health myself, I was a little disturbed to see this practice potrayed as almost heroic rather than (again, hindsight 20/20) primitive. Compared to the king’s other doctors, of course, Willis was quite forward-thinking. One doctor is hilariously outraged at the impropriety of conducting a physical examination of the king while another just can’t get enough royal crap to examine.

It was hell to be declared mad in 1788. You can see it on the king’s face every now and then, when he becomes temporarily lucid enough to wonder what is happening to him. I would have rather the film focus on this more, instead of finding a doctor to declare as hero just because he is a little less incompetent or inhumane than the rest.

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