The lives of the British royals, particularly their private lives, have always fascinated us Edward, who gave up his throne for the woman he loved; the madness of King George; the divorce of Charles and Di.
A lesser-known, though equally compelling, story is the friendship of Queen Victoria and a Highland commoner named John Brown. Their mutual devotion was so intense, in fact, that Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and the cartoonists of the time dubbed the Queen "Mrs. Brown." Victoria ruled England, but John Brown ruled her. Their friendship scandalized the nation and nearly toppled the British monarchy.
The fascinating course of their relationship is charted with aplomb in Mrs. Brown, a marvelous feature film co-produced by the BBC Scotland and Mobil Masterpiece Theatre. It's a film as fine as Nicholas Hytner's Madness of King George.
Directed by John Madden, Mrs. Brown is firmly anchored by the masterful performances of British stage and screen actress Judi Dench and Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. Dench, who conducted a great deal of her own research into Victoria, brings the grieving queen to life as a woman who, following her beloved husband's death, still yearns to be treated like a woman.
Connolly, known primarily for his rough-hewn humor, is ideally cast as John Brown, the royal hunting servant who becomes the Queen's loyal protector and closest friend. They're supported by Anthony Sher as the impish Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, and Geoffrey Palmer as the queen's adviser, Henry Ponsonby.
As can be expected of the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre, Mrs. Brown is a wonderful period re-creation and a telling peek inside the inner sanctum of royalty. As the film opens, Victoria, barely concealing her inconsolable grief, comes to her table swathed in the black costume of mourning and flanked by family and advisers. She takes a few bites and, unable to eat, puts down her cutlery, prompting her court to follow suit. If the Queen doesn't eat, neither shall they.
From hand to mouth, Royals-style: John Brown (Billy Connolly) and Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in Mrs. Brown.
When the Queen fancies taking a swim to ease her misery, the ceremony and fanfare that follows is almost humorous. A specially-adapted carriage, complete with steps, delivers the Queen and her granddaughters directly into the briny water, where in full bathing regalia complete with hats, they take a few strokes before climbing back into the royal carriage. Such are the details that shape Victorian royalty.
Into this carefully prescribed regimen enters John Brown, an honest, no-nonsense Highland servant who doesn't think much of rules or propriety. The Queen has summoned him because Prince Albert was always fond of him, and she hopes his presence may ease her mourning. "It is the Queen's view that all Highlanders are good for the health," explains her aid.
The imperious Victoria is initially offended by the irreverent and willful Scot who's not afraid to say what he feels. Eventually, however, she softens to his unorthodox charms. The script by Jeremy Brock is filled with heart, intelligence and abundant wit. Mrs. Brown is not only a fascinating historical chronicle, but a superb exploration of platonic friendship between a man and a woman. The kind of spiritual bond they enjoyed, based on mutual need, admiration and respect, is too seldom portrayed in film. It's the kind of love that onlookers have often misunderstood. The Queen's court, as well as her subjects, misinterpret the Queen's relationship with this perceived interloper and usurper of power.
Too distraught to handle her royal duties, the Queen follows Brown to the Highlands for her health, setting up her court at Balmoral. It's a self-imposed exile necessary for her healing, and Brown brings her cheer, taking her riding, walking, picnicking and visiting a farmer and his family, where, in a wonderful scene, the Queen sets the table and even enjoys a nip of whiskey. Victoria thrives in this simple environment, away from worldly duties and burdensome responsibilities. Her grief is so eased that she feels guilty enough to consult the clergy. The masked conversation that follows is another of the film's highlights.
As the Queen's protector, Brown also thrives, assuming more and more power. His interests, however, are strictly in the Queen's safety and well-being. Her friendship and trust, more than his new-found power, motivates and fulfills him. Resenting what they see as "ridiculous favoritism," the Queen's family and advisers demand Brown's dismissal. "Sometimes I feel Brown is all I have left of Albert," she says. "I will not give him up."
When the country, too, begins to feel abandoned by its ruler and some factions are calling for the dissolution of the monarchy, it's up to the savvy politician, Disraeli, to persuade Brown to return the Queen to her duties. Her return to her kingdom, however, will inevitably alter the course of her relationship with the man she once called her "best friend."
The story of Queen Victoria and John Brown is not so much about scandal as it is a poignant tale of friendship and love. Bravo to Madden and company for bringing it to the screen with such humanity and dignity.
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