Tag: Nicholas Hytner

The Madness of King George (1994)

Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren excel in this masterful adaptation of Alan Bennett’s classic play

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Cast: Nigel Hawthorne (King George III), Helen Mirren (Queen Charlotte), Ian Holm (Dr Willis), Rupert Everett (Prince of Wales) Amanda Donohoe (Lady Pembroke), Rupert Graves (Captain Greville), John Wood (Lord Chancellor Thurlow), Geoffrey Palmer (Dr Warren), Jim Carter (Charles James Fox), Julian Rhind-Tutt (Duke of York), Julian Wadham (William Pitt), Anthony Calf (Captain Fitzroy), Adrian Scarborough (Fortnum), Struan Rodger (Henry Dundas), Caroline Harker (Mrs Fitzherbert), Roger Hammond (Dr Baker), Cyril Shaps (Dr Pepys)

Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III allegedly changed its name for the film adaptation because producers worried American audiences would feel they missed the first two films in the series. It’s not actually true, but it was a lot of free publicity for Nicholas Hytner’s film debut – a marvellous, accomplished and brilliant theatrical adaptation that will always take a firm place on my list of favourite films. It’s an excitingly well-made, hilarious and heartfelt film that captures forever Nigel Hawthorne’s greatest ever performance.

In 1788 King George III (Nigel Hawthorne) is still fuming over the loss of “the colonies” (the film front and centres talk of the plucky United States, to help sell the film in the land of the free) and the behaviour of his ambitious oldest son George (Rupert Everett). Happily married to his wife Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren), and the father of 15 children, George is a stickler for form and duty. So imagine the shock of his ministers when his behaviour becomes impulsive, irrational and finally obscene. With the king talking non-stop and impossible to control, the Prince of Wales schemes to become Prince Regent. Desperate, the king’s ministers call in Dr Willis (Ian Holm), a professional doctor of the mad, who claims he can (with time) cure the king. But will it be in time to prevent the regency?

Nicholas Hytner has rather charmingly claimed that he knew so little about film-making he didn’t realise the difficulty of many of the things he asked for, and if he had known he would never have asked. He gives much of the credit to the seasoned pros working on the film pulling out the stops to give him what he asked for. The end result is a brilliantly paced, lusciously filmed epic that is both a wonderfully moving personal story of a crotchety but lovable monarch and a witty look at regency politics. Several scenes are shot with an imaginative brilliance, from shots that throw themselves into the middle of scuffles at court with the unbalanced king, to sweeping landscape shots that make it look like the thing cost millions of dollars.

The other advantage of bringing in Hytner (director of the original stage production) was his brilliant understanding of Alan Bennett. Bennett’s script is superb, crammed with sensational lines and brilliant jokes that never get in the way of the humanity. Bennett is always more than radical than his cosy reputation suggests, and King George is a witty deconstruction of the purpose of the Royal family (politicians frequently comment on their pointlessness and George defines it as “smile and wave” and to act as “a model family”). It’s got a great understanding of the frustrating waiting game of long-serving heirs (being Prince of Wales “is not a position, it is a predicament”). The film even lands a cheeky gag at the end with the suggestion that the King’s condition was hereditary.

Hytner’s film uses the trappings of royalty brilliantly, contrasting them to great effect with the later degradation of the king – in an inspired moment, George’s first “enthroning” in the restraint chair Willis uses to condition him into behaving is soundtracked to Handel’s Zadok the Priest. George’s court is an uptight, staid place where people can’t relax (or even sit – George is so adamantly opposed to people sitting in his presence even a heavily pregnant woman is not exempt during an interminable bell-ringing version of Handel). George is a constrained figure – so it’s no wonder his insanity displays itself as an increasingly loose-lipped lack of inhibition.

The question of madness is richly handled. As Willis says, many of the mad consider themselves kings, so what does a king fancy himself as? And how can you tell what is normal for a king anyway? George is an eccentric from the start – and even his recovery at the end is basically eccentricity with an element of self-control rather than a full recovery. The film never shies away from making you invest in the rough treatment the king undergoes to wrestle him back to sanity. The doctors get short shrift, either incompetent or scheming (“When will you get it into your head that one can produce a copious, regular and exquisitely turned evacuation every day of the week and still be a stranger to reason” Geoffrey Palmer’s wonderfully dry Warren tells a toilet-obsessed colleague). 

The film is slightly more confused about Willis. Strongly played, with a twinkly chippiness, by Ian Holm (who is just about perfect) the film can’t quite decide if Willis is responsible for the king’s recovery or not. It’s a battle of wills, but is Willis ahead of his time or as medieval as his colleagues? Does Willis’ aggressive conditioning (punishing bad behaviour with restraints) force the king back into sanity? Or is it George’s love of his wife that provides the final push? Or is the king naturally on an upcycle where madness expresses itself in eccentricity rather than incoherence? It’s not clear (maybe this is deliberate) but Willis’ regime of punishment and reward has a slight air of quackery.

What’s pretty deliberate was Bennett and Hytner’s insistence that only Nigel Hawthorne could play the king. Thank god they did, as Hawthorne is simply brilliant. Cheated of the Oscar in 1994, Hawthorne is compelling. He also conveys the natural authority of a king, and the “grumpy old man” side of the king is mined for brilliant comic effect. But it’s also a beautifully heartfelt and hilarious performance, running the gamut from delight in obscenities to teary fury and fear at the treatment from his doctors and loss of mental control. Such a sublime performance.

And it surely inspired some top work from the brilliant cast around him, many of whom revived their roles from the stage production (chief among these Wadham’s wonderfully dry Pitt).  Helen Mirren is warm, proud and eventually desperate as Charlotte, while Rupert Everett mines the Prince of Wales for all the comic pomposity and childishness he can. Rupert Graves is excellent as a loyal equerry, while John Wood, Jim Carter and Geoffrey Palmer also excel. You’ve rarely seen such a strong cast of British stage notables, and it’s not surprising they were attracted to perform in a script that has as many good lines as this one.

It’s accomplished and luscious, is brilliantly shot and designed, and is packed full of wonderful sequences. It wears its intelligence lightly, with George as a proto-Lear struggling to hold onto his marbles. The characters even sit and read Lear at one point (“Is that wise?” questions Thurlow. “I had no idea what it was about” says the little-read Willis). George may recover his wits in time, but it’s unclear whether this makes him more or less of a human being. In many ways at the height of his insanity, he’s a warmer, friendlier person (if out of control), then he is as his buttoned-up, stickler-for-duty self. 

The Madness of King George is the sort of film all theatre adaptations wish they could be, brilliantly cast, opening out into something that not only feels compelling to watch but also brings out the great depths of the original play. What is monarchy for? How can we tell if the all-powerful are mad or not? What is sanity anyway? All this and with some superb jokes, and a story that really involves you. With Nigel Hawthorne’s simply brilliant performance at the centre, this is one for the ages.

The Crucible (1996)

Winona Ryder and Daniel Day-Lewis are swept up in the heated emotions of small-town Salem in The Crucible

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (John Proctor), Winona Ryder (Abigail Williams), Paul Scofield (Judge Thomas Danforth), Joan Allen (Elizabeth Proctor), Bruce Davison (Reverend Samuel Parris), Rob Campbell (Reverend John Hale), Jeffrey Jones (Thomas Putnam), Peter Vaughan (Giles Corey), Karron Graves (Mary Warren), Charlayne Woodard (Tituba), Frances Conroy (Ann Putnam), Elizabeth Lawrence (Rebecca Nurse), George Gaynes (Jude Samuel Sewell), Mary Pat Gleason (Martha Corey)

The Crucible is now so well-known, it’s virtually a shared cultural reference point. Surely we have all studied it at some point at school, or seen it on stage (or both). The play helped “witch trial” become a common short-hand for an increasingly vicious campaign conducted by society against a group within it. The Crucible works so effectively as a play because it is both simultaneously a brilliant recreation of the time it is staging, and a play of universal themes which is for all time.

In Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, the young girls of the village are caught dancing around a fire in the woods late at night by Reverend Paris (Bruce Davison). The next day, some of the girls will not awaken from fits, and rumours of witchcraft spread. Terrified of the blame being pinned on her, the girls’ ring-leader Abigail Willams (Winona Ryder) “confesses” to being tempted by the devil and swiftly accuses other people in the village (often at the prompting of senior villagers keen to remove rivals and resolve old feuds). However, Abigail’s real target is Elizabeth Proctor (Joan Allen), the wife of Abigail’s former lover John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis). The accusations quickly spiral into a series of trials based on the girl’s “evidence”, conducted by Judge Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield).

The Crucible may be one of the finest adaptations of a play ever made. With the script adapted for the film by Arthur Miller itself, the play is effectively opened out and subtly restructured (the original is essentially four acts, each a single scene in a single location) to allow different character interactions, earlier introductions, and to show us things only implied in the original play. Many will complain about the film showing us rather than allowing our imaginations to work, but the film never loses the ideas and themes of the original play and gives it a real emotional force. What the film might sacrifice in the claustrophobia of small rooms, it more than makes up for in getting across a real sense of a community consumed by hysteria.

Nicholas Hytner – in only his second movie – directs with great skill, using a number of low-angle lenses to make ceilings loom over the scene. He mixes this with sweeping shots (beautifully filmed) of the Massachusetts countryside, which looks increasingly windswept and bleak. He really understands how to play the film “straight” – to let its universality speak by grounding it in the Salem countryside, without tipping the hat. His theatrical experience works wonders for the set-piece scenes, which sizzle with tension and brilliance, with Hytner allowing moments where you can almost convince yourself everything is going to be OK.

Miller’s expanded screenplay also allows an even greater sense of the hidden corruption of the trials, and how they are misappropriated by certain members of the village. Far more than even in the play, you get a real sense of old scores being settled, and of odd-balls and eccentrics being targeted. Frances Conroy (pre-Six Feet Under fame) is excellent as Ann Putnam, using accusations to alleviate her own bitterness at the loss of her children, while her husband is a spittle-mouthed bully, shamelessly using the trial as a landgrab (well played by Jeffrey Jones, awkward as it is to see him in a movie – google it).

In this nightmare village of suspicion and accusation, Abigail Williams is the only person who really understands the opportunities and dangers fully. Winona Ryder is often overlooked in this film, but her brilliant expressiveness is perfect for Abigail. She really adds depth and shade to the character – yes she is bitter and angry and ruthless and shameless, but she’s also scared and genuinely in love with John, and you get flashes of doubt and even regret over what she is doing.

The object of her obsession is John Proctor. Daniel Day-Lewis – Miller’s son-in-law – takes on the role and he is of course as excellent as you might expect. Day-Lewis’ key roles are such larger-than-life landmarks in cinema, it’s easy to overlook him playing a role taken on by so many other actors. At first, you almost feel it might be a waste – but he gives it a growing emotional commitment and force. He may be the one sane man in the storm of hysteria, but Day-Lewis doesn’t lose track of Proctor’s inner cowardliness, his corruption, his bitterness. Day-Lewis’ performance repositions the role as a man who has to learn to stand for something. It’s a superb performance.

He’s equally matched by Joan Allen, whose performance as Elizabeth Proctor throbs with dignity, but also a puritan strength of faith that makes it easy to imagine that Proctor would feel overwhelmed by a sense of being weighed in the balance and found wanting. She and Day-Lewis have a beautifully played, hugely emotional scene late on in a windswept field which (like so many other scenes in this production) briefly suggests a hope for the future.

Paul Scofield did so few films that each of his rare performances is to be treasured (this was his last film performance). His Danforth is simply superb, probably close to the definitive performance. It trades a lot on an inversion of Scofield’s most famous performance as Thomas More. Scofield plays Danforth as a man filled with certainty without a trace of doubt, who is married to the word of the law but has no understanding of the spirit of it. In Scofield’s masterful performance, flashes of arrogance and pride intermix with a genuine sense of faith and morality. His Danforth is convinced everything he does is right – a position that allows him to commit many wrongs.

The film is rounded out by several other excellent roles: Bruce Davison is outstandingly weaselly as Samuel Paris, Peter Vaughan has a wily shrewdness as Giles Corey, Rob Campbell is increasingly filled with doubt and anger as Hale, Karron Graves is wonderful as a desperate and scared Mary Warren. Mary Pat Gleason is perfect as the proud Martha Corey, while George Gaynes subtly suggests a man consumed with doubt as Judge Sewell.

“Anybody seeing The Cruciblenow would never dream that it had been a play” said Arthur Miller on this adaptation. He’s right. This must be one of the best stage-to-screen adaptations there has ever been, with all involved totally understanding what made the play great while expanding and deepening the content for film. It’s a marvellous film.

The Lady in the Van (2015)

Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings tearing up the neighbourhood

Director: Nicholas Hytner

Cast: Maggie Smith (Miss Shepherd), Alex Jennings (Alan Bennett), Roger Allam (Rufus), Deborah Findley (Pauline), Jim Broadbent (Underwood), Claire Foy (Lois), Frances de la Tour (Ursula Vaughan Williams)

This screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play is entertaining and a feast of good acting, even if not a lot actually really happens in it. Nicholas Hytner directs, as he did with the original National Theatre production, with Maggie Smith also reprising her role as the titular bag lady. Interestingly the theatrical device of two versions of Alan Bennett  (as the narrator) is also carried over from the film, with Alex Jennings playing both Bennett and his “Bennett the Author” persona.

Mary Shepherd (Maggie Smith) is an elderly bag lady who lives out of a broken down van which she insists painting a garish bright yellow. Befriended by ‘neighbour’ Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) she moves the van onto his drive – and stays for 15 years. The film chronicles their unlikely friendship, as well as Bennett’s conflict with himself over his motives (in this and in everything else) and slowly reveals Mrs. Shepherd’s background.

It’s a witty and entertaining meandering film that oddly feels rather like the biggest budget home movie in the world, a sort of National Theatre party with the action taking place in Alan Bennett’s real home, Hytner himself popping up as an un-named character (as well as appearing on screen at the end with the real Bennett) and its dozens of cameos from British theatre, not least cameo appearances from all the cast of The History Boys (a rather distracting eye-spy game when you notice it). This doesn’t make it not fun – its a delight to see so many great actors at work – it just feels a little odd.

What probably keeps this from being impossibly smug is that it is actually a very acute (and self accusatory) examination of the author himself and the nature of writing. Bennett is not afraid at every point to question his motives and to accuse writers of exploiting those around them for material. Of course this is slightly distanced by the device of the “two” Alan Bennett’s, but this is pretty much essential to dramatise a conversation a man has with himself without using voiceover. Alex Jennings is, by the way, terrific in both roles – a wonderful mimic, but also really understands the psychology of the part and makes the contrasts between the two Bennett’s immediately clear.

Maggie Smith though is the star here and she is a shining one. She brings not only her usual wit and comic timing to the part,but she also is able to demonstrate with a few beats, or a small aside, years of pain and loneliness. She makes a woman who is basically quite unpleasant and difficult, into someone you care deeply about. A late sequence of her playing the piano – music being something she has avoided for years – is deeply moving because of the simplicity and genuine feeling she plays the moment with.

Hytner directs with a smooth unfussiness and a great deal of polish – I’ve always thought he is a natural at film directing, and he resists the temptation for visual flashiness. It goes without saying that he is a superb actors director. The final act of this film however doesn’t quite click into place – the comment on giving Miss Shepherd “the ending she would have wanted” doesn’t quite work and the final conversion with a decreased Miss Shepherd a scene too far. It’s an anecdote rather than a story – and a good anecdote well told – but not something I can imagine wanting or needing to see again.