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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Film Festival Crowned by 'Mrs. Brown'




The lineaments of the historical situation depicted in "Mrs. Brown," the 1997 drama playing this week as part of the Faces of Love festival, should be familiar enough to Moscow denizens: an ailing ruler shut off from the people, with ministers and servants angling for influence, and the nation left wondering if their system of government will survive.


But the subtle, almost genteel unfolding of "Mrs. Brown" is worlds away from the violence and chaos of modern Russian politics. For the film transports us to the realm of Britain's Queen Victoria, and what is done in Russia with bullets, bribes and blackmail here is accomplished by glances, gestures and intonations.


Director John Madden's film - excellently made if not always compelling - tells the true story of the unusual relationship between the widowed Victoria and the roughhewn Scot John Brown, her horseman at her northern retreat of Balmoral. The strong friendship between the two came to assume so much importance to the queen and brought the horseman so much influence over her household that malicious whispers soon began to mock the monarch as "Mrs. Brown."


The queen's family and ministers were distressed by the relationship (which was never sexual, nor even romantic in any conventional sense); not only did it elevate a plebeian far above his station and upset the apple cart of Victorian hierarchy, but more importantly, it kept the queen tarrying at Balmoral for years, away from London, out of public view.


Brown knew Victoria needed privacy - and the support of his unconditional loyalty - in order to recover from the grief that swallowed her after the death of her consort, Prince Albert. But the ministers - especially the deep-delving Disraeli (a wonderful performance by Antony Sher) - knew the queen was needed in London to cool the anti-monarchial fever.


But this collision between private and public interests takes place slowly, over years, like two icebergs grinding together. Madden and screenwriter Jeremy Brock do a fine job of making this glacial conflict lively and telling, without sacrificing their grasp on the pace and atmosphere of Victorian life.


But above all, the movie belongs to its two stars, who do a masterful job, bringing a vivid sense of life to what could easily have been a stuffy costume drama. Comedian Billy Connolly plays John Brown: incredibly tall, fearsomely bearded, given to drink, fierce in his loves and his hates. Throughout the movie, he is the only person to speak to Victoria as if she were a human being, offering her stoic comfort for her loss, scolding her when she is haughty, standing by her in the machinations at court, and always, obsessively, keeping watch over her safety. Connolly brings a vibrant presence and strength to the role in an excellent performance.


Equally riveting is Dame Judi Dench as the queen. Her ability to convey complex, conflicting emotions without any words, or with only those most stilted, rote expressions allowed to a grand monarch, is matchless. She somehow manages to imbue Victoria with a rich inner life, without ever distorting the historical image of the queen as a dour, dowdy, stifled figure.


"Mrs. Brown" may not be particularly moving, but the exquisite work done by Dench, Connolly and Sher provides ample, rich enjoyment.


- Chris Floyd