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'Mrs. Brown': Scotch Pining

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 1997

  Movie Critic

John Madden (II)
Judi Dench;
Billy Connolly;
Geoffrey Palmer;
Antony Sher;
Gerald Butler (II)
Running Time:
1 hour, 44 minutes
For scenes of beatings and skinny-dipping.
Queen Victoria, sorrow dragging at her shoulders like a heavy cloak, struggles with the weight of both crown and grief in "Mrs. Brown," an engagingly genteel costume drama about her relationship with John Brown, the strapping Scots manservant who helps her overcome despair and return to public life.

The story befits a lurid period romance, except that nothing untoward comes of her royal majesty's alliance with the outspoken Highlander in this altogether discreet re-creation of an intriguing but neglected chapter of HRH's 64-year reign.

Historians support the film's portrayal of a platonic albeit vivacious interplay between the two. But at the time, the public was scandalized that a commoner had gained intimate access to the queen, nicknamed Mrs. Brown by London's scrappy tabloid press.

Judi Dench, a British theater legend, brings enormous dignity as well as a wealth of insecurities to the title role. Crowned as an 18-year-old, Victoria has become accustomed to getting her way without regard for the wishes of family and friends, much less servants.

And like many modern athletes and entertainers, she's cosseted by toadies and flatterers, none of whom would dare question her bratty behavior or petty self-indulgences. All that changes when she summons Brown (bonny Billy Connolly) to Windsor from less formal Balmoral Castle, where the affable Scotsman had become a favorite of her late husband.

Brown arrives in 1864, three years after Albert's death, yet the queen remains in what her personal secretary Henry Ponsonby (Geoffrey Palmer) describes as "a state of unfettered morbidity." The queen doesn't deign to look up from her papers when Brown is first ushered into her presence, but Brown quickly wins her attention and affection with his honesty, wit, loyalty and charm.

In time, Brown becomes de facto head of the household and even the Prince of Wales (David Westhead) must go through him to communicate with the Queen Mum. When he insists the court move to Balmoral for her health, Benjamin Disraeli (diabolically delightful Antony Sher) intercedes when public opinion turns against the queen and the monarchy is threatened.

Partly funded by "Masterpiece Theatre," "Mrs. Brown" is classy fare, with posh settings, gorgeous scenery and lots and lots of polishing from director John Madden ("Ethan Frome") and writer Jeremy Brock. Like many chapters in the PBS television series, the movie exploits the perennial conflict between rigid social conventions and messy human needs. It would all be a bit too familiar were it not for the strength of its performances, down to the humblest chambermaids. Connolly, a stand-up comic, and Dench, a grand dame, are as odd a coupling as were the robust Brown and the stuffy Victoria, but they are wholly believable. And although she is plain as a scone without clotted cream and jam, she manages to become both radiant and feminine in his company. Whether he lifted her skirts as well as her depression, we shall never be sure. That's Victoria's secret and it seems she's entitled to it.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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