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In the early ’60s, when the Oxbridge Beyond the Fringe troupe was galvanizing London and New York theater audiences, no one could have guessed that Alan Bennett would ultimately be regarded as the team’s most valuable player. Not puckish, musical Dudley Moore, whose career soared to Hollywood stardom but now languishes in failed sitcom hell. Not tall, vaguely sinister Peter Cook, who founded the British satirical weekly Private Eye and enjoyed a lengthy stage and screen partnership with Moore. And not urbane, erudite pathologist Jonathan Miller, who went on to direct an acclaimed cycle of Shakespeare plays and scientific documentaries for the BBC. Blond, owlish Bennett, a former Oxford history lecturer, was the least celebrated member of the quartet, the one whose name was mentioned last, if indeed remembered at all. Three decades later, this deceptively bland, donnish fellow has emerged as the Fringer with the real stuff or, to appropriate the title of his collection of television plays, “the writer in disguise.”

With the recent passing of Dennis Potter, Bennett’s standing as Britain’s pre-eminent playwright is virtually unchallenged. As with Potter, much of Bennett’s finest, most challenging work was commissioned for television, the most democratic of mediums. Few of Bennett’s early teleplays—like the 1979 All Day on the Sands, a doleful comedy about a working-class family’s excruciating seaside holiday—have been seen in this country. But his more recent efforts have attracted a sizable, enthusiastic American following. His six dramatic monologues, which make up the 1988 “Talking Heads” miniseries, are landmarks of minimalist expression, seamless fusions of astringent comedy and delicate pathos. (The best of these, Bed Among the Lentils, the testament of an embittered, alcoholic vicar’s wife, rewarded Maggie Smith with the richest, juiciest role of her career.) “Single Spies,” also 1988, a brace of ironic, morally intricate one-act stage plays about Guy Burgess (An Englishman Abroad) and Anthony Blount (A Question of Attribution), were subsequently (and splendidly) adapted for television.

Bennett’s writing for the stage deserves to be better known in this country. His first play, Forty Years On (1968), a prankish comedy framed as an end-of-term play at a boarding school and incorporating hilarious parodies of Max Beerbohm, T.E. Lawrence, and the Bloomsbury group, should be seriously considered for production by adventurous 14th Street theater companies. Bennett’s screenwriting career has been limited to two major features, one of which—A Private Function, a biting farce about the swinishness of human beings and the humanity of pigs—is a satirical masterpiece.

1995 promises to be the year when America finally catches up with Bennett’s art. Writing Home, his entertaining, provocative anthology of occasional essays and diary excerpts, is currently a best-seller in England and is scheduled to be published here soon. This week, The Madness of King George, the film version of his celebrated 1991 play, The Madness of George III, debuts on area screens.

Bennett’s play accomplishes what James Goldman’s wildly overrated The Lion in Winter failed to do: the recreation of a critical episode in the British monarchy viewed from a contemporary perspective. Neatly sidestepping Goldman’s crude anachronisms and rib-nudging vulgarity, George III is wholly satisfying as an historically accurate chronicle of the monarch’s 1788 dementia and its political and personal consequences. Upon this factual bedrock, the playwright layers a series of other concerns: an examination of the machinery and structure of political power; a partial rehabilitation of George III’s oft-maligned sovereignty; a psychological portrait of a psyche unhinged yet somehow liberated by disease; and, as always with Bennett, a fertile opportunity for comic invention—parodies, pastiches, and epigrams. The play’s title role offers a once-in-a-lifetime actor’s showcase which has made an international star of Nigel Hawthorne, best known in this country for his work on the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister.

In depicting the king’s delirium, Bennett draws on recent medical speculation that George III’s illness stemmed from a chemical rather than mental imbalance—porphyria, a hereditary disorder characterized by the presence of large numbers of bluish-purple crystals in the urine and blood. We first see George at the height of his kingly powers—verbose, eccentric, shrewd, and compulsively involved with the minutiae of his realm. The onset of his madness unleashes a struggle for control of political succession involving, among others, his plump, indolent son, the prince of Wales; his chilly, calculating prime minister, William Pitt; and Charles James Fox, the Whig statesman who supported the abolition of slavery and the American and French Revolutions.

The playscript of The Madness of George III is so intelligent, articulate, and witty that I can’t hope to do justice to it within the narrow confines of a movie review. One marvels at the dexterity with which Bennett compresses a complex historical situation and nearly three dozen characters into a structure intelligible to audiences with little or no historical awareness. The lushness and variety of the play’s language—from the king’s soaringly poetic apostrophe to the lost American colonies (“Forests, old as the world itself, meadows, plains, strange delicate flowers, immense solitudes”) to earthy patches of Bennett’s characteristic lavatory humor (“I have always found the stool more eloquent than the pulse”)—makes the work seem fully realized on the printed page without the benefit of actors and scenery.

While probably the best English- language film we’ll be offered all year, The Madness of King George, directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also staged the original stage production, is a bit disappointing. Although Bennett adapted his own work for the screen, the text has been streamlined, simplified, and moderately dumbed-down. The title change indicates the pressures Bennett must have felt from movie moguls. (Did they fear that potential ticket-buyers would not know who George III was? Or that the movie might be confused with a sequel, as in The Exorcist II or Halloween III?) The play’s fundamental plot, characters, and themes remain intact, but many of its nuances, overtones, and verbal flourishes have been pared away.

More damaging, however, is Hytner’s bumbling direction. The theatrical production was appropriately austere: a staircase spanning the breadth of a bare stage with curtains to subdivide the space into various playing areas. But Hytner, making his first film, ill-advisedly succumbs to conventional wisdom and “opens up” the action. Aping the excessively pictorial, ceremonial style of late-period David Lean, he piles on the scenery, cutting from palace and castle exteriors to throne rooms, courtyards, and Parliament chambers, each with a full complement of sumptuous costumes. This distractingly opulent imagery has the unwanted effect of disrupting the viewer’s concentration on what’s really important—ideas, characters, and language—and makes the narrative continuity seem unnecessarily choppy. Hytner’s compositions are stiffly theatrical, lacking the flow and intimacy of accomplished filmmaking. Like Malcolm Mowbray’s A Private Function, King George succeeds in spite of ungainly direction.

Hytner’s limitations as a filmmaker, however, are partially redeemed by his skill with actors. Hawthorne’s tormented monarch never crosses the thin line separating larger-than-life eloquence from theatrical posturing. Helen Mirren exhibits her usual authority as Queen Charlotte, the mother of George III’s 15 children. But the role has been glamorized to befit a star of Mirren’s current stature. (In the preface to his play, Bennett informs us that the queen “was every bit as homely and parsimonious as she’s presented, stamping pats of butter with her signet so that they would not be eaten by her servants. Her name is preserved in Apple Charlotte, a recipe that uses up stale bread.”) Ian Holm is suitably obdurate as Dr. Willis, the clergyman-doctor whose Annie Sullivanlike bullying harasses the king back to health. The minor role of Lady Pembroke, the queen’s lady- in-waiting, has been expanded to allow fetching Amanda Donohoe a seduction scene. Playing the ambitious, foppish prince of Wales—about whom someone epigrammatically observes, “It takes character to withstand the rigors of indolence”—is hardly a stretch for handsome, epicine Rupert Everett, though this is the athletic actor’s first crack at impersonating an obese dandy. Rupert Graves is appealingly compassionate as Greville, the king’s young equerry, whose sympathy and sensitivity are shabbily repaid when the monarch recovers.

Moviegoers are best left to discover King George‘s deft set-pieces and verbal felicities for themselves. But it’s impossible to avoid mentioning the film’s most sublime moment. The ghost of King Lear haunts every frame of this story. How could any English-language drama about a maniacal monarch escape the connection? Cunningly, Bennett acknowledges the association by incorporating it into the action. As George III begins to recover his sanity, he, two soldiers, and Dr. Willis (who knows nothing of Shakespeare) read Lear aloud. “It’s my story,” the king realizes, and after enacting the recognition scene with Cordelia, he grasps the nature of his plight. “I have always been myself even when I was ill. Only now I seem myself. That’s the important thing. I have remembered how to seem.”

This poignant epiphany, linked to a host of other memorable sequences and capped by a gratifyingly malicious closing shot—a spitball aimed with deadly accuracy at the present royal family—makes The Madness of King George, despite its stylistic blemishes, a movie that matters.