In a cardigan and Sansabelt trousers, Nigel Hawthorne would look as unprepossessing as a Sun Belt retiree. But dressed for title office in The Madness of King George, the British actor, best known to public-TV watchers as the consummate civil servant in the cheeky Britcom Yes, Minister, makes a dignified and affecting monarch. Playwright Alan Bennett, who adapted his own stage work, takes as his inspiration a time when George III the George who lost the North American colonies appears to have also lost his mind. What happens, Bennett asks, when a man can no longer project the power required of a ruler? And in its absence, what fills the psychological space where power used to reside?
The questions are intriguing (substitute the current Prince of Wales or, say, Ronald Reagan if you prefer). Bennett, however, wants you to feel the ramifications, not just parse them. As director of the play that toured Europe and the U.S., starring Hawthorne, for almost three years, Nicholas Hytner (Miss Saigon) gave Madness a spare, almost ritualized staging that emphasized the philosophical at the expense of emotional immediacy. But this is the rare adaptation that works even more effectively than the play. (Bennett smartly insisted that the original director and star be included in the film no movie-star substitutions, thank you.) With the camera able to come in close on George's bewildered face as he disintegrates into soiled, foulmouthed helplessness, on the pained devotion of his royal wife (regal Helen Mirren), and on the tough-love measures exacted by his one helpful doctor (Ian Holm as a sort of 18th-century shrink), the human limitations of one miserable, terrified man, who is the king but doesn't seem like the king, take on a tremendous resonance completely unexpected in a costume drama about a man in a wig. Another plus: The humor built into this sharp-witted human comedy is enhanced in the translation.
Meanwhile, the arrestingly stylized imagery of the original Madness has not been lost, particularly when the royal family freezes into elaborate tableaux of hollow noblesse oblige. Any resemblance to Windsors, Kennedys, or any other royal personnel currently living is strictly not coincidental. B+