Mrs. Brown Reviews
***1/2 out of 4 stars
I just don't have as much interest in Victoria. She was not quite so stuffy as everyone now believes, of course, but she certainly put forward that impression. When Albert was alive, she was a little over-inclined to defer to him; after Albert died, she spent ten years in near-total seclusion. She wrote, but her journal of the Highlands isn't as interesting to me as Elizabeth I's poetry. Her marriage seems to have been happy, but her children were an utter disappointment--to her too, I'm sure. So much that was interesting was happening around her, and she seems to have been utterly out of touch with all of it. By the time she came around, the primary job of the monarchy was to be interesting, and I don't think she even managed that very well. What's more, during the period covered by this film, the British people had it made quite clear to them how easily they could do without a monarch at all.
The year is 1861. Prince Albert has died, and Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench) is in deep mourning. She is giving over all governance of the country. One of her family's faithful servants, John Brown (Billy Connolly), is brought down from Balmoral to take care of her horse. He decides to take care of her completely, getting her to open up enough to go out riding. Then, she goes back up to Balmoral herself. Brown begins to have more and more influence over her, to the extent that there are to this day rumours that the two were secretly married. Her son, the Prince of Wales (David Westhead), resents John Brown mightily. So, too, do the various ministers and Members of Parliament who are now dealing with republican sentiments. France, after all, did not have a monarchy at the time, and France was closer to London than the Queen. Brown encourages Victoria to stay secluded, believing that it was safer for her that way. The country is going its own way without her, and some people are happier about that than others.
People expect Elizabeth I to have been a proto-feminist, given that she was queen in her own right and felt that she deserved it. In fact, her determination not to marry was in part because she didn't want to share the throne. People are wrong about this. However, Elizabeth lived in an era where there was no such thing as feminism, and we just last night discussed the beginnings of the women's rights movement as personified by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who lived at the same time as Victoria. Victoria was actually of the school that women didn't need the vote, because they had husbands to protect them. I'm not entirely sure she believed she should have been the queen. Certainly it was not her decision that her husband not be given the title of king; she wasn't happy about that at all. Maybe that's one of the reasons I don't think she's all that interesting; she was in the right time and place to make advances that she just never bothered making.
However, Dame Judi does well enough by the role. She was nominated for Best Actress for this, but the story isn't really about her. She's much less enigmatic than he is, for one thing. He might or might not be in love with her; he definitely loves her in one way or another. It might be something like the idolization of a subject for a monarch, but I really don't think that's it at all. At bare minimum, he considers himself as much his protector as she is his, for all that she actually has the job of being his protector. (Not that she's doing her job.) The arguing he does with her is worrying about her best interests. He doesn't care if it's best for the country. Everyone else is most interested in the country--well, Bertie is most interested in himself and when he'll get to be king. Perhaps the biggest draw to Brown for Victoria is that he's the only person who seems to be interested in her first and foremost. That's very seductive.
It's a story intended to humanize a monarch of whom most people have a very specific mental image. We think of her as stuffy, as joyless, as miserable and depressed. This is, for at least some of her reign, true. On the other hand, she was a woman who loved very deeply. Whether or not she married John Brown, she loved him so much that Bertie had every tribute she'd had made of him after his death destroyed after hers. The love we see here is almost like the love of an older brother and younger sister, and the movie never really suggests that there's anything else. It's true that it doesn't matter what kind of love exists between a man and a woman; someone is going to assume that it's sexual unless they actually are blood relatives. It's a crying shame in a lot of ways, and it has certainly made life difficult for more than one royal female over the centuries. The curious thing about Victoria is that she was one of the last royals who really didn't have to care what people thought, and she's arguably one of the reasons later royals did.
The film does a marvelous job of placing the viewer in the time period. Scenery is breathtaking; setting is perfect. Watch for the scene where the Queen sets the table. Who doesn't love the tale of a monarch falling for a commoner?
The performances are great, but some of the movie never creates a mood among all the scenes. There is a definite connection between the key actors but that alone holds up most the movie.
The movie really could have been made better without the dry, olden aged camera view. This detracts from the brightness that could have been shows, rather than its 80s view. Still, the movie is a piece of work worth watching.
Two years after the death of her love Prince Albert, the grieving, widowed Victoria has become stubborn, uncooperative, and reliant on her state of misery. Enter Brown, a Scottish friend of Albert's with a more level-headed stubbornness of his own, brought on with the intention of being on call when and if the Queen chooses to momentarily abandon her seclusion for outdoor exercise. When Brown learns his position is mostly deemed dismissible by all in the palace, he starts to play hardball, standing at attention in the courtyard with the horse instead of staying hidden in the stables as is preferred.
His method successfully breaks the ice, and Brown is keenly aware of the attitude he must use to bring the Queen and her control to health: in short, no fawning over her. Brown starts snapping her back to her senses by reversing debates and practicing what could be called "killing with kindness." Due to his utmost respect for her, he's rasher and less patient in also changing the loyal subjects who surround her, including her own son, the Prince of Wales (David Westhead). The story conveyed by director John Madden (not the football commentator but the guy who, the following year, would make the less enthralling Best Picture-winner 'Shakespeare in Love') claims Brown is almost single-handedly responsible for the overhaul of attitude within the government.
Before long, Victoria sheds her pale gloom, enjoying a glass of Scotch with Brown at a friend's cottage past her ordinary curfew. Brown is boosted up to the head of security, and with all the unusual changes and servants' dismay for the "upstart" from Balmoral, newspaper reporters get wind of the duo's relationship. To be clear, the relationship between John and Victoria is not sexual - merely friendly and respectful, similar in structure (to the bittersweet end) to the one Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy memorably portrayed in 'Driving Miss Daisy'. It becomes up to the Queen as to whether or not she is ready to be active with love again. In memory of her deceased lover, she does not, but even if she had chosen to, the question would then be whether Brown would accept and pursue or stay firm to the role he was given, despite his ultimately apparent emotions.
I'm put off to discover, reading past reviews, some disapproval toward stand-up comedian Connolly's performance. Though I found this to indisputably be his best dramatic work, it somehow conjured up opinions of him to be a second-rate Sean Connery and accusations of merely wearing the character without anything internal. I find these gripes flat-out wrong; Connolly is why the film is so watchable, perfectly cast with his second-nature blunt line delivery with heartfelt appreciation to follow. Dench, in her first starring role, received a pleasing Oscar nomination for her elegant portrayal of the Queen, but the way she and Connolly play off each other's subtly mysterious feelings should have made for a two-for-one.
'Mrs. Brown' contains adequate costuming, splendid settings, noble supporting performances (Gerard Butler plays Brown's brother in his film debut), and a very sweet plot. What is unfortunately distracting, beyond all of these wonderful traits, is the unfit camera equipment and cinematography, making the whole film appear made for TV (specifically PBS). The fact that this movie is shot on location in foggy England doesn't help this flaw, spoiling the lighting of many shots. As the film's story progressed over several years, I also started to wonder why it never snowed in this northern setting; there is a later scene of Brown and Prime Minister Disraeli (Antony Sher) hiking through a slushy rainstorm, but this is the extent of the weather's variety. Surely the British system doesn't take a season-long hiatus for winter.
Anyone fortunate enough to happen upon this all-but-forgotten flick will discover a fondness for it. With '97 being such a notable year for cinema (in the shadow of the box-office juggernaut 'Titanic'), just about any film during that Oscar season seems under-estimated. While I could list quite a few I will always like more from that year, 'Mrs. Brown' is right up there.