Mrs. Brown (United Kingdom, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Mrs. Brown is a love story much in the same vein as Carrington in that it deals with platonic affection that runs deeper and truer than that of the motion picture staple romantic variety. These days, it seems that whenever we see a male/female friendship on screen, it's just a setup for the inevitable moment when the two realize that they're fated to be lovers. Not so with Mrs. Brown, one of the most emotionally sensitive and intelligent love stories of the year. It shows, amongst other things, that it's possible to love completely and with unflagging devotion without sex ever becoming an issue.

Queen Victoria was born on May 24, 1819 and died nearly eighty-two years later, in the first month of 1901. Her reign as England's monarch, which began in 1837, lasted more than six decades and left such an indelible impression upon the country that, upon hearing of her death, author Henry James wrote, "We all feel a bit motherless today." Mrs. Brown, which is based on actual events and uses historical figures, transpires during one of the darkest periods of Victoria's reign -- a four year segment from 1864 to 1868 (with a brief epilogue in 1883). Still mourning the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, who died over two years earlier, the Queen (Judi Dench) is in virtual seclusion at Windsor. She sees no one outside of her servants and her immediate family, rarely goes out, and has no taste for politics. In the words of her loyal secretary, Henry Posonby (Geoffrey Palmer), they are all "prisoners of the queen's grief," which he describes variously as "ferocious introspection" and "unfettered morbidity." So, in an attempt to revive Victoria, Posonby summons John Brown (Billy Connolly), the highlander who runs the queen's Scottish retreat of Balmoral, to Windsor. It's Posonby's hope that Brown will "appeal to the queen's sentimental belief that all highlanders are good for the health."

Brown arrives and proves to be a breath of fresh air. Before he enters Windsor, the castle is a place of icy silence and solitude. Director John Madden so effectively conveys this atmosphere that we become keenly aware of such things as a ticking clock and a cleared throat. Brown's attitude of speaking what he thinks, regardless of the consequences, horrifies the servants and family. But, after initially being annoyed, Victoria warms to his methods, and it isn't long before the two develop a unshakable friendship. They become so close, in fact, that wags begin calling the Queen "Mrs. Brown." The Prince of Wales, wary of Brown's growing influence over his mother, seeks to have the highlander sent back to Scotland. And the Prime Minister, Disraeli, wonders whether Brown is more likely to be a valuable ally or a dangerous enemy.

Like 1995's The Madness of King George, Mrs. Brown mixes the political machinations of various MPs with the growing fissure between the monarch and the Prince of Wales. However, while George may have been mad, Victoria is merely eccentric. Nevertheless, her extended period of mourning, during which she has been out of the public's sight, has created a great deal of uncertainty among her subjects, and Parliament is beginning to discuss the possibility of disestablishing the monarchy -- a prospect that horrifies Disraeli and Prince Edward.

Brown and Victoria's relationship develops and deepens slowly and naturally, and credit must be given to both of the lead actors, Judi Dench ("M" from Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies) and Billy Connolly (Howard Hessman's replacement in the TV series Head of the Class), for their extraordinary performances. Both actors immerse themselves in their roles, playing Brown and the Queen without a hint of artifice, and the chemistry between them is palpable. Theirs is a wonderfully real relationship that is reminiscent of the one between Lytton Strachey and the title character of Carrington. (Ironically, Strachey is most famous for his 1921 biography of Queen Victoria.)

Perhaps the best thing of all about Mrs. Brown is that it doesn't offer any hokey, Hollywood-type moments. The picture remains true to itself throughout, affirming that film maker John Madden (Ethan Frome) has a keen insight into the human psyche. Mrs. Brown is a fascinating character study, a wonderful love story, and a brilliant period piece (Masterpiece Theater and the BBC, both renowned for their costume dramas, are listed as co-producers). In a summer that is sure to be glutted with formulaic action thrillers and flat romantic comedies, Mrs. Brown will delight and touch any viewer who seeks it out.

Mrs. Brown (United Kingdom, 1997)

Director: John Madden
Cast: Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, Geoffrey Palmer, Richard Pasco, Anthony Sher, David Westhead, Gerard Butler
Screenplay: Jeremy Brock
Cinematography: Richard Greatrex
Music: Stephen Warbeck
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Ranked #6 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1997
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1997-07-11
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85