Oscar Movies: Mrs. Brown (1997)–Starring Judi Dench

Centering on a lesser-known chapter in the lengthy reign of Queen Victoria, Mrs. Brown is a sensitive, richly detailed drama about the extraordinarily complex and intimate friendship that she developed with her loyal servant John Brown, a relationship that scandalized the entire country and even threatened the stability of the crown. Two superlative performances, by legendary stage actress Judi Dench (in her first leading screen role) and Billy Connolly, elevate this costume yarn way above the level of a well-mounted Masterpiece Theater production. Though a bit static and lacking the exuberance of The Madness of King George (with which it shares some similar concerns), Miramax should expect positive response from educated viewers who’re likely to be absorbed by this tightly-focused, emotionally rewarding film.

Set in the 1860s, Mrs. Brown is part a political intrigue, part a family drama–and above all a passionate if platonic love story between two individuals who could not have been more different. Like Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George, scripter Jeremy Brock aims at humanizing a mythic monarch by underlying her personal life, or off-stage personality as it were. The appeal of these tales rests on audiences’ insatiable curiosity about life the behind the scenes and behind closed doors of public celebrities.

The story begins in 1864, three years after Queen Victoria (Dench) has lost her beloved husband and mentor Albert, plunging into a deep and dizzying depression, which results in a complete disappearance from public view. Despite incessable efforts by some of her children, her loyal staff–and her worshipping public–no one seems to be able to lift the spirits of the disconsolable queen, who’s soon labeled “The Widow of Windsor.”

Into this gloomy milieu enters Scottish servant Brown (Connolly), the Royal Family’s loyal hunting guide and horse caretaker, who devotes his life to one goal: cheering his queen and protecting her, both physically and emotionally, from any potential harm. Down-to-earth and with no regard for protocol, Brown causes immediate upheaval in the Court, disrupting the previously silent dinners, whispering in hallways and other formal conventions. Charmingly nonchalant and single-mindedly committed to his task, Brown is the only person who doesn’t treat the queen with gloves or fear.

Brown’s insolence seems to be working a magical spell on the queen who, for the first time in years, begins to react emotionally–as a person and as a woman. Spurred by Brown’s insistence, she begins to smile and resumes her rides, spending long days walking with Brown and confiding in him. Despite the sharp contrast in social status, and the impossible barriers of class, politics, and rigid norms, Victoria and Brown are attracted to one another as individuals needing the basic emotions of intimacy, affection and loyalty. However, as soon the Queen recommences the pleasures of “being alive” (as someone says), rumors of an affair begins to scandalize British society and a crisis in the Monarchy seems inevitable.

Brown is contrasted with prime minister Disraeli (Anthony Sher), a shrewd, charismatic politician who understands that it’s the servant who holds the key to the queen’s return to public life, an act that will once and for all terminate all rumors of an unseemly affair. For this very reason, Brown is also resented by Sir Henry Ponsonby (Geoffrey Palmer), the queen’s private secretary, and her own children, particularly Bertie (David Westhland), Prince of Wales.

Director John Madden handles his chores far more impressively than he did in his last assignments (Ethan Fromme, Golden Gate), employing an unobtrusive style that serves effectively the drama and also allows his gifted thesps to develop highly-modulated characterizations.

Mostly working on stage and occasionally appearing in movies (recently as M in Mission: Impossible), Dench brings her commanding stature and superb elocution to the multi-nuanced role of a strong but vulnerable woman. As written and performed, Dench’s Victoria deviates from previous stage and screen portrayals that show the queen to be arrogant, rigid and unfeeling.

As a character, Brown lacks the overtly heroic dimensions of Rob Roy or Braveheart, two mythic Scottish figures celebrated in recent American movies, but Connolly (better known as a comedian) acquits himself marvelously, stressing the irreverent willfulness of a servant who sacrificed his entire life in her majesty’s service, a man who faced a major personal dilemma when pressured to give Victoria back to the nation at the cost of his own heart.

Though there are a number of outdoor scenes and production values are handsome, ultimately it’s the narrow focus and chamber nature of the material that lends the movie its resonance and emotional power.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Best Actress: Judi Dench