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Highland Fling 

Wednesday, Jul 30 1997
Mrs. Brown
Directed by John Madden. Screenplay by Jeremy Brock. Starring Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, and Antony Sher. At the Embarcadero Center.

In the not-so-brave new world of independent filmmaking, low-budget movies premiere at Sundance or Cannes and win plaudits from overpsyched audiences, publicity from desperate feature writers, and distribution from boutiques that are usually subsidiaries of major studios. Right now, Tarantino-style thrillers are out; crazy-clan stories and upstairs-downstairs tales are in.

Mrs. Brown (a Cannes hit and Miramax release) is dignified to the dead max -- brownish-gray in mood and look and spirit. It's based on the true story of the platonic but controversial bond between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and a Highlander named John Brown (Billy Connolly), who had been the devoted gillie (or outdoors servant) of her late husband, Prince Albert. In our age of quick fixes for grief and depression, there's something to be said for a movie in which the hero proves his mettle by simultaneously keeping the queen active and allowing her time to feel sad. But should an audience have to follow her whole grieving process? The director, John Madden, and the screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, apparently think they can develop their story in the same manner that Victoria recovered her powers: through painful accretion.

Picking up Stanley Weintraub's 1987 biography Victoria: An Intimate Portrait, I was relieved by the comparative speed, amplitude, and clarity of its 27-page chapter on Brown. In Victoria's journals she related telling Brown "no one loved him more than I did or had a better friend than me" and his answering "Nor you -- than me. No one loves you more." To Weintraub, "The transparent sincerity suggests a mother and her oversized, and somewhat simple, foster son rather than noble mistress and lowborn lover. Brown's utter personal loyalty was unlike anything else in the Queen's experience. In an earlier, less civilized age he would have killed for her as readily as he carried her tea tray." Mrs. Brown could have used that kind of confident, slashing perspective. Instead we trudge through interminable vignettes of Brown taking charge of Victoria's domicile -- and destiny -- with his brusque, sure manner, and then being envied, parodied, and persecuted. Perhaps the filmmakers are too respectful of Victoria's aura and Brown's faithfulness; perhaps they simply have a plodding sensibility. They neither cut to the story's quick nor tweak it.

As the years from 1864 to 1883 totter on, you see Victoria go from being as lined and wary and slow as a tortoise to being a happier tortoise, while Brown gradually gets used up. Victoria as tortoise -- or as energy vampire? This question is barely dramatized (much less electrified); it's as if the filmmakers were content to mark the years of this friendship like the rings on a tree or the levels in an archaeological dig. The lead characters themselves might as well be locked inside an observation cage. Oh, we get glimpses of worried advisers and insulted relatives and tumult in Parliament and in the press, and we're supposed to feel a giddy rush when Brown breaks Victoria loose for some Scottish home cooking. But the filmmakers rarely convey a nimble intelligence in either of them.

The crux of the movie's public drama is the push of loyal monarchists to make the queen more visible at a time when republicans are threatening the throne. But there's too much talk of Brown as a smudge on the crown and not enough consideration of Victoria's canny survival instincts. She consolidated her popularity with her subjects under Brown's influence, even if he took a drubbing from Fleet Street and her court. When the queen's memoir, Leaves From the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, turns into a public-relations coup, the film frames it as a happy accident. Weintraub sees it differently: "Victoria knew what she was doing. When she wrote of visiting the lowborn, and even included her sketch of a Scottish baby asleep in its wooden cradle on rockers, her readers knew that she was one of them, if only by adoption. Republicanism, even at its noisiest, as it was to be a few years later, had poor soil in which to grow among the Queen's readership." The anti-monarchists stalled.

Judi Dench has been a great supporting actress (for example, as Mistress Quickly in Branagh's Henry V), but what's a performer to do when her role's salient characteristic is its massive inertia? At best, you could say she is every square inch the queen. Billy Connolly dabs Brown with pathos and fanaticism as well as heartiness and ardor. But their joint weightiness grows oppressive as the filmmakers' fearful conventionality girdles both of them. At least Antony Sher, as Disraeli, gets to master the most civilized of sneers. It's a delightful case of supercilious scene-stealing -- he cracks this movie's glaze with his crooked eyebrows.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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