Mrs. Brown (1997) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Queen and her Highlander servant

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Although it has been more than 20 years since it came out, “Mrs. Brown” remains as one of better British period drama films made during the 1990s. Inspired by a fascinating human relationship in the life of one of the most famous monarchs in the British history, the movie gives us a restrained but intimate drama mainly driven by the emotional undercurrents swirling around its two main characters, and it surely helps that the movie is supported well by its lead performers’ top-notch acting.

In the beginning, the movie gives us a bit of historical background information about the life of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench). Not long after she came to the throne in 1837 at the age of 18, she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840, and they were quite happy together in their marriage for next 21 years, but, unfortunately, Albert suddenly died in 1861 due to typhoid fever. Devastated by this sudden sad loss, Victoria came to seclude herself from public life and duty, and her family members and servants had no choice but to maintain the status quo as she continued her secluded status during next 3 years.

The movie begins its story in 1864, when Victoria’s personal secretary Henry Ponsonby (Geoffrey Palmer) decides to do something for bringing some fresh air into her life. A Highlander servant named John Brown (Billy Connolly) is sent from Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and Ponsonby hopes that, as a servant who was trusted and esteemed a lot by Albert, Brown can console and comfort the queen while accompanying her outside the court.

However, right from the very first day, things do not work out as well as Ponsonby wishes. When he is formally presented to the queen, Brown does not hesitate to speak out his opinion: “Honest to God woman, I never thought I’d see you in such a state. You must miss him dreadfully.” His rather blunt words surely feel like a big slap to the queen as well as Ponsonby and others around her, and he does not even regret at all because, well, he simply speaks the truth which is shown right in front of his eyes.

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Soon, he comes to engage in a sort of mental tug-of-war with his queen, who is certainly not amused when she sees Brown being ready for her in the courtyard along with her horse. After he refuses to follow Ponsonby’s order, the queen eventually comes to confront Brown, but Brown remains adamant as before (“The queen will ride out if and when she chooses” – “And I intend to be there when she is ready.”).

In the end, Victoria comes to decide to go outside the court, and that is the beginning of her close relationship with Brown, who quickly becomes someone to trust and depend on for her as they spend more time with each other during next two years. While remaining loyal to his queen as before, Brown cannot help but thrilled by being his queen’s most trusted servant, and there is an amusing scene where he expresses his excitement during his skinny dipping on a nearby beach.

Meanwhile, Ponsonby and many other people including Prince of Wales (David Westhead) are not so amused about what is going on between Victoria and Brown, who exerts considerable influence over the court through his relationship with her. Prince of Wales hates to see his mother getting more attached to Brown, but he cannot do anything about that, and neither does Ponsonby, who is frequently annoyed by Brown’s constant presence around Victoria.

In case of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Antony Sher), he has to deal with a tricky political circumstance which may lead to the disestablishment of the monarch in the worst case. As Victoria’s relationship with Brown draws many gossips, she is often referred to as ‘Mrs. Brown’ behind her back, and Disraeli and many other politicians are alarmed by her increasing unpopularity in public. Later in the story, he goes to Balmoral Castle to see Brown as well as the queen, and he comes to have a private conversation with Brown while they go hunting together outside. He sees that Brown really cares about his queen, but he also tactfully reminds Brown of what must be done for her and her monarchy, and Brown certainly gets the message.

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Steadily maintaining the low-key tone of his movie, director John Madden, who would become more prominent with his next film “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), did a good job of establishing of vivid period atmosphere on the screen. The silent gloominess surrounding Victoria during the first half of the movie is palpable enough as the background for the dynamic relationship between Victoria and Brown, and I enjoyed how the mood is occasionally brightened by several lightweight scenes including the one in which Victoria and Brown visit a house belonging to one of Brown’s family members.

For Judi Dench and Billy Connolly, the movie is a milestone in their respective careers. Looking as regal and commanding as required, Dench, who received her first Oscar nomination for this film, brings considerable human complexity to her character, and Connolly, who was mainly known as a comedy actor before this film, deftly complements his co-star’s performance with his equally nuanced acting. Thanks to their good on-screen chemistry, we can always sense unspoken emotions surrounding their characters, and it is poignant whenever their characters are allowed to reveal a bit of their hidden feelings to each other.

Overall, “Mrs. Brown” is an engaging drama packed with a number of admirable elements, and it deserves to be watched along with “Victoria & Abdul” (2017), which is a sort of sequel to “Mrs. Brown” in many aspects. The movie is indeed your typical British period drama film, but it is a very good one nonetheless, so I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

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