The producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr died a week ago. He was the son of Sam Goldwyn, the world's most quotable movie executive and the G in MGM, although he wasn't part of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for very long. Goldwyn Jr worked hard at making his own name and left a respectable alternative-Goldwyn filmography - from Cotton Comes To Harlem to Master And Commander via Mystic Pizza. His final picture, from just over a year ago, brought the story full circle: a remake of his dad's 1947 film The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. I find it hard to say which is worse - the Ben Stiller version or the Danny Kaye original - but certainly Sam Sr's was the bigger hit. Still, we owe Goldwyn Jr a lot. His company ensured that a lot of worthwhile projects found a global audience. For this week's movie pick, here's a Samuel Goldwyn Company film that scored a handful of Oscar nominations 20 years ago, and turned my old friend from Miss Saigon days, the London stage director Nicholas Hytner, into a movie director - The Madness Of King George:
On stage at the National it was The Madness Of George III. And the joke back a couple of decades back was that the Goldwyn Company had insisted on the title change because American audiences reacted to the original with: "The Madness Of George III? But I haven't seen The Madness Of George II..."
But not every Hollywood exec's decision is crass and idiotic. Whatever the reason, I prefer the movie title. After all, we only refer to monarchs as "George III" or "George VI" or "Edward VII' when they're dead and gone. This film conjures George III's court so vividly the here-and-now present-tense moniker sits better. I think the movie's better than the stage production, too: Nigel Hawthome's performance is fuller, the supporting players are more rounded, and the courtly environment itself becomes a character, which it never did at the National. And, because Alan Bennett wrote his play in short sketch scenes, it always looked like a movie script anyway.
Bennett has an eye for a premise, a situation: Coral Browne and Guy Burgess in Moscow (An Englishman Abroad), Anthony Blunt and the Queen alone together (A Question of Attribution). But he's not very interested in propelling the premise into any sort of dramatic narrative: to potter about in these footnotes of history is sufficiently fascinating to him that he never connects them up to the big picture. The disappearance of George III's marbles in 1788 is natural Bennett territory, and, at one point, the film makes explicit the preoccupation of almost all his work: the Lord Chancellor observes that the King seems to be himself again, and His Majesty replies, "I have remembered how to seem - what what!" The difference, in worlds where seemliness is all, between what people seem and what they are is enough for Bennett: Burgess and Blunt, Elizabeth II and George III — there's nowt so queer as folk.
How to "seem" is a theme more suited to screen than stage. For example, as His Majesty's madness worsens, everything is taken away from him - his queen, his qalace, his powers. But you appreciate how total is the loss of his authority by a simple, deliberate breach of etiquette: a country doctor, played by Ian Holm, fixes His Majesty in his eye, breaking the rule that a courtier cannot look directly at the King.This is a film moment. Indeed, between the sovereign and the doctor and the inscrutable Pitt, much of the picture is taken up with heavyweight eye-acting. Hawthorne is especially strong: in the early scenes, he's a merry monarch with dancing eyes; by the time Ian Holm has strapped him. into straitjackets and restraining chairs, the eyes have dimmed and dulled, and yet deep within flickers a faint awareness of his own degradation.
Hawthorne's performance starts as a turn — thundering and boisterous, what-what-ing and hey-hey-ing — and that's the way the posters sold the picture: "All knowing. All powerful. But is he all there?" That's the easy way to dramatize madness — through the eyes of everyone else who has to put up with it: "If a few ramshackle colonists in America can send him packing, why can't we?" But, as the King's irrationality increases, the film shifts its point of view: Hawthorne's performance is immensely moving; he draws you in and holds your sympathies. That's not easy: when a man loses his reason, there's less reason to be interested in him. But maybe monarchs are an exception: "The state of monarchy and the state of lunacy share a frontier," says one physician. The trappings and protocol are so lacking in reason anyway that it's the madness that makes him human; he becomes engaging not ex officio but personally.
The play's director, Nicholas Hytner, making his film debut, serves Hawthorne well. And Bennett's script benefits from both the close-ups and crowd scenes denied it on stage. A king spends much of his life in crowds and it's vaguely unsatisfying not to be able to see the full retinue. Equally, it's a huge advantage to be taken into the Royal bedroom (and perched like Michael Pagin at the end of Her present Majesty's four-poster) while Hawthorne and Helen Mirren address each other affectionately as Mr and Mrs King: these scenes are intimate and touching.
Hytner has also unobtrusively choreographed the film. When the King is in control, the shots are framed like still photographs — Their Majesties seated, with family and courtiers arranged behind; when suddenly the King lashes out, the camera also careers around, scrambling like the train of frantic flunkeys to catch up. As the madness accelerates, the plush, Royal blues and reds and golds seem to be drained from the screen: he winds up in a room without furniture, strapped down not by bewigged and buckled servants but by thugs dressed in black. It turns out to be porphyria — which, as the closing caption notes, is hereditary. That and a scene in which the King urges his offspring to be "a model family" for the nation are cheap shots, feigning contemporary parallels the film itself can't be bothered to draw. But that's a minor niggle. Hawthorne and Hytner have taken a slight riff on a Royal anecdote and turned it into a rich and rounded meditation on monarchy and madness.