Mrs. Brown
directed by John Madden
(Miramax, 1997)

Most Americans know little about Queen Victoria, except that she was "not amused" by displays of impropriety. But just how un-Victorian Queen Victoria could be is the stuff of Mrs. Brown, a heady piece of historical drama written by Jeremy Brock, directed by John Madden and starring veteran performers Judi Dench and Billy Connolly.

The film opens with two rather inexplicable images: a bust flying off the wall of a castle and a man running through a dark forest, shooting his pistol into space and shouting "God save the Queen." The queen, of course, is Victoria, and the man is one John Brown, a Highlander and former member of the royal household who's called back into service to help Queen Victoria (Dench) recover from a lengthy bout of "unfettered morbidity" brought on by the death of her husband, Prince Albert.

Victoria, it seems, had turned her back on her kingdom and adopted a lifestyle that makes the Amish look like party animals.

Brown (Connolly), a plain-speaking man who dares address Victoria as "woman" before her household, succeeds. But for his success he pays a price few would want to ante up, and it isn't long before the household and the press are accusing the queen and her servant of things that would make Bill Clinton blush.

Historical dramas can be pretty stuffy stuff, and, if they stick to the facts, they're often downright anticlimactic. Mrs. Brown suffers from neither of those problems. John Brown wouldn't let them.

A colorful figure in his kilt and wee ponytail, Brown keeps both his monarch and his audience off guard with a reckless stubbornness, a flair for bold action and a knack for agrarian metaphors.

"I don't groom a horse to be admired by others," he tells one of the queen's advisers when his methods are questioned. "I groom it because it needs grooming."

Dench is equally effective as the repressed monarch who warms ever so slowly to Brown, then all but discards him after he has succeeded in bringing her back into public life.

Madden makes the most of the British countryside as well. From the Isle of Wight, where the story begins, to the rugged Scottish Highlands, where the queen retreats during times of crisis, Mrs. Brown is as thick with atmosphere as it is with conspiracy.

Anyone looking for a Terminator 3 would no doubt be disappointed by Mrs. Brown. The tale is often subtle; small movements mean a lot. And you have to listen carefully if you want to put together all the pieces of Madden's puzzles before the credits roll.

But if you have a yen for real-life personal drama, palace intrigue or the small details behind the grand sweep of history -- or all three -- John Brown is your man, and Mrs. Brown is your film.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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