Directed by John Madden. Starring Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, Anthony Sher, Geoffrey Palmer. (1997, PG, 103 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Aug. 15, 1997
With more fresh blood and less starch than we've come to expect from Brit costume drama, Mrs. Brown dramatizes the 20-year friendship between Queen Victoria (Dench) and a Scottish commoner named John Brown (Connolly), who managed the royal household after Prince Albert's death. Their tender, platonic love lifted the grieving dowager's spirits, but it also triggered one of the first tabloid scandals. Nowadays, of course, jaded tab readers require nothing less than photos of public livestock-shagging by the royal family to achieve full righteous dudgeon. But in the 1860s, all it took to inspire outrage and anxiety was for a mourning queen to retreat from public life for a few years with no deadline for return. Victoria's hiatus not only fanned rumors of illicit romance with the burly, rough-hewn highlander but gave anti-royalist forces an opening to push for abolition of the monarchy. This historical background is interesting, not only for its perspective on the oddly touching bond between the British and their crowned heads but also for its account of the origins of “personality journalism.” However, the real core of Madden's film is the simple, emotionally rich story of improbable affection between two radically dissimilar human beings. Dench, three decades removed from her early, lithe temptress roles, is now 63 and endowed with all the physical and emotional gravitas needed to play the redoubtable Queen Mum. Even in her most vulnerable moments, she seems as impenetrable as a stainless steel slab. When the cocky, whiskey-guzzling Brown manages to breach her defenses with tenderness, anger or an impertinent joke (Connolly is a comedian by trade and filters a healthy dose of humor into his gruff character), we appreciate the skill -- not to mention sheer balls -- it takes to do so. “I'm not a subtle person,” Victoria confides to Brown in one deeply affecting scene. “I act almost solely upon feelings.” And so it is with Brown himself, a man who's as loyal as a bulldog to his queen but who lacks the wily subtlety it takes to prevail over his growing roster of powerful enemies. Brown, ironically, finds himself protected by a man who's the very soul of subtlety: Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli (Sher). Sher, who possesses some of Tim Roth's genius for pushing the boundaries of caricature, saves the story from over-earnestness and plays a key dramatic role in convincing Brown to steer the reluctant Victoria back into her public role -- a move that threatens his personal bond with the queen even as it helps the institution she represents. Mrs. Brown isn't the kind of film that gets described as brilliant, innovative, or multilayered. Most of what it has to offer is right on the surface. But assuming that rich human insight, great production values, and topnotch acting still count for something, Mrs. Brown should have no trouble finding an appreciative audience.