MRS. BROWN *** 1/4 (UK, 1997)
Since among the co-producers of "Mrs.Brown" is "Masterpiece Theater," it will no doubt turn up on PBS, but see it on a theater screen if possible.
Presented as a fascinating docu-drama, it deals with the special, warm relationship of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and commoner John Brown. It is not a love story. The unquestioned love affair was between Victoria and Albert. She became Queen at 18, ruling over the Empire where the sun never set for a record 64 years. In 1840, then not quite 21-years-old, she married her cousin Albert. He died of what was then diagnosed as typhoid fever in December 1861, leaving his 42-year old widow and their nine children.
The Queen was inconsolable. Her despair was of royal magnitude. The way it is depicted, she went into total seclusion, feeding on her own misery, never appearing in public. In her abodes, protocol made everything deadly dull, stiff and formal and keeps the Queen away from human contacts.
In 1864, her worried, bothered entourage --particularly her Secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby--had the bright notion of adding John Brown to the Royal household. John Brown, a burly Highlander talented with horses, who had been Prince Consort Albert's gillie (personal servant), hunting and riding companion. Adding Brown to the Royal household was to have Victoria get some fresh air and exercise.
Brown arrives with the Queen's favorite horse, starts out by committing gaffes in etiquette: he addresses H.M. without being asked to do so, later calls her "woman," reacts with cheeky directness. In delightful scenes, he persuades her to ride (if 2 mph can be called riding). A bond born between the Queen and the commoner blooms into a genuine rapport that makes the Queen speak of him as her best friend. To the shock, disapproval and discomfiture of the household's higher echelons (e.g. Ponsonby), Brown becomes something like the Queen's factotum. In his gruff-ironic way he immediately lords it over the servants He addresses the aristocracy without subservience, the Queen with a gentle familiarity that to bystanders sounds like criminal "lese-majeste." It is historically true that John Brown was the only being in the Queen's household who ever spoke to her with informality.
Dedicated to the Queen's physical health, Brown counsels swimming. This gives the movie its chance to show the amazing (and for us, funny) contraption from which bathers get in the water. Dedicated to her mental health, he even takes her to a peasant cottage where the good cheer makes Victoria laugh. Eventually his influence helps to make her attend social functions.
The state of things may be serious but does not lack humor. At the Queen's ludicrously retinue-laden picnic, stalking, hidden journalists observe through binoculars. Sniffing them out, John roughhouses and menaces those pre-paparazzi. He then delivers a dressing down to the staff "for compromising H.M.'s security."
The Brown affair caused much gossip in its day, and later some unprovable guesses or assertions by historians. It is shown however with tact and delicacy, not as an affair but as what the French language, so rich with terms of sentiments and feelings, calls "amitie amoureuse." This translates as "loving friendship" but with a very special flavor.
(In support of the theory that there was no physical relationship, that the Queen had a clean conscience, is Victoria's project, after John's death, to write his biography. She was dissuaded not for fear of revelations but so that the Queen would not demean herself by writing about a servant).
Victoria is given the sobriquet of "Mrs.Brown." Cartoons appear in the period's ancestors of our tabloids. These, however were far milder than today's yellow press. The situation worsens by the Queen not appearing in public, not making herself visible to the masses of her subjects, thus losing popularity. Her family, Parliament, the country at large are upset. There was even some talk (simplified in the film) about disestablishing the monarchy.
Prime Minister Disraeli travels to Balmoral ("600 miles from civilization" says he), to cajole the Queen and cannily enlist Brown's help against "the threat posed by Republicanism." There is urgent need for Victoria's physical presence among the people. Finally the Queen asks Brown to resign, which he flatly refuses in an amazing shouting match, in the presence of others, to boot.
There is also a verbal duel between Albert ("Bertie") Prince of Wales -- the heir to the throne who is not especially liked by his mother -- and Brown, whom he calls an "arriviste" (go-getter). Says the Prince "Do you know who you address? " In a delicious invention that doubles as a dig at today's sad state of grammar, John retorts :"WHOM you address! "
In 1872 the Prince of Wales is dangerously ill with typhoid -- the very disease that presumably had killed his father ten years before -- but recovers. The Queen decrees the giving of thanks at St.Paul's Cathedral. At long last she is seen by the masses, Riding in an open carriage (her stubborn choice against that of prudent statesmen), Victoria regains her popularity.
Brown remained the Queen's personal attendant in her travels. On at least one occasion he saved her from an attempted assassination. He died in 1883. Victoria continued to reign for another 18 glorious years.
The acting of all is irreproachable, from respected Judi Dench (who does not look like Victoria) in her first major film-starring role, to stand-up comic Bill Connolly, down to the awed house-maids. Antony Sher does his Disraeli with relish and historical credibility. Geoffrey Palmer (Ponsonby) may be familiar to us as Miss Dench's old flame in the TV series "As Time Goes By" (on PBS). It took me some time to identify him, since TV's Palmer is a dour character whose jowls set something of a record -- but here these are hidden by whiskers and beard.
Though "Mrs. Brown" was rapidly filmed and on a very modest budget, its production values are excellent. The cinematography is particularly skillful in interior scenes that retain realistically the look of candle-lit spaces. Period visuals and feel are beautifully recreated.
Historians might cavil at some vaguenesses, misleading aspects and inaccuracies. (I was enormously helped by Walter Arnstein, Jubilee Professor at the University of Illinois, specialist in British history and astute cinephile). Victoria and Albert spent four months of the year at their country residences, Balmoral Castle in Scotland (where Victoria was happiest) and Osborne on the Isle of Wight. The movie is vague about which is which, conveys the notion that the widowed Queen remained for years hidden permanently away from London or Windsor, even after she recovered from the depths of her depression. One is also given the impression that Disraeli, whom Victoria favored,was the Prime Minister almost all that time, when in fact "Dizzy" held that position for 10 months in 1868 and through 1874-1880. The self-exiled Victoria may be perceived --wrongly-- as a do-nothing Queen in affairs of state. Ponsonby was younger than is shown. Anti-Catholic Victoria would never order a mass but would approve of a Church of England service.
This said, the film's 90 minutes do a yeoman job of Queen Victoria and her times (including a hunting scene where a poor stag is shot in a merciless fusillade). It is one of the best historical movies made, dethrones the once-wildly popular "Victoria the Great" and "Sixty Glorious Years," and links clearly to the ceremonies of British royals and their essential isolation --to this day.