Opened: July 25, 1997 Rated: PG
A beautifully acted drama about Queen Victoria's emergence from the lengthy mourning of her dead husband, "Mrs. Brown" directly challenges the formality of English royal life.
In the mid-1860s Victoria held her court, and to an extent all of England, prisoners of her grief. She wore black for years and often broke down in reluctant regal tears. Her family and closest advisers desperately tried to bring her out of her funk to no avail.
In 1864 her husband's old stable hand, a brash Highlander named John Brown, returned to court and single-handedly moved her to live again. Their intimate friendship, and Brown's unwashed and unapologetic manner (he often addressed the Queen as "woman!"), became the stuff of scandal and gossip that threatened the stability of the crown.
This handsome film is driven by superlative performances from Dame Judi Dench as the Queen and Billy Connolly as Brown, who become friends, confidants and possibly even more.
Dench is a legendary stage actress, known to most Americans only as James Bond's new M in "GoldenEye," but her take on Queen Victoria has the kind of remarkable presence she is know for in the U.K. Wonderfully sullen, yet clearly capable of joy, the Queen is abrasive and hyper-sensitive. She has her staff walking egg shells for fear of setting her off.
When Brown arrives, he refuses to recognize protocol. His job, he reasons, is to have the Queen's horse ready to ride as she desires, and despite reprimands to the contrary he spends several days standing under her window with her horse saddled up.
Connolly's moving performance is most unexpected. A Scottish stand-up comedian with one short-lived American sitcom and a few bad movies under his belt, this guy's career has been built on trying to be more obnoxious than Robin Williams.
As John Brown, he is stern, single-minded and coarsely charming. He captures the earthy essence of a Scottish Highlander and walks through the castle like he's still outdoors.
Soon the Queen's dearest friend and favored servant, Brown muscles to the head of the household and alienates the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister (played with scene-stealing irony by Antony Sher) and most of the servants, but retains the Queen's ear and holds her heart.
"Mrs. Brown" is swirling with political intrigue as Her Majesty begins to lose credibility over this friendship, but director John Madden (not the football guy, the guy who made of "Ethan Frome") wisely leaves the focus on Dench and Connolly, striking deep emotional chords as Brown is pressed to give up their friendship so the Queen can return to duty.
Although "Mrs. Brown" is a based on factual accounts of history, closeness of this relationship and the scope of it's impact are precariously balanced in suspense. A historical drama that can hold your attention as this one does, without swinging broadswords in your face, is commendable.