Published August 1, 1997
Mrs Brown written by Jeremy Brock, directed by John Madden and starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Billy Connolly as her servant, John Brown, is a Masterpiece Theatre costume drama, based fairly faithfully on true events, which has found its way onto the big screen and manages, in spite of all expectations, not to look lost there. This is partly owing to the excellent performances of the two principals, and of Antony Sher as Disraeli, and partly to the skill of the story-telling and the beauty of the photography. Most of the latter was shot on location at the royal residences of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
The story is of the transformation of the Queen’s household by the arrival there in 1864 of Brown, who had been a gillie, or hunting and fishing servant, of her late husband, Prince Albert, in Scotland. He has come ostensibly to look after the Queen’s pony, but he swiftly finds that she requires a much more important service from him, namely the deliverance of herself and everyone around her from her imprisoning grief over the Prince’s death. She has kept herself shut away from the world for three years already at this point with a seemingly inflexible will, though in fact she is simply paralyzed by the loss of someone she had come to rely on so much. Brown realizes this and he proceeds to bully her out of her misery and paralysis by acting as the Prince himself would have done with her. Soon, Brown is helping her on to her pony by saying “Move your foot, woman!” And, to the horror of her largely sycophantic advisers and attendants, she moves it.
To the gentlemen of her household, Brown is a mere servant, and a Scotsman to boot, but it is his manly willingness to take her in hand which is all that matters to the queen. To her mind he in effect assumes a husband’s place. Hence the film’s title, taken from Disraeli’s sardonic description of Her Majesty behind her back—though the film is mercifully reticent about the possibility of any sexual relationship between them. Naturally, he makes enemies of Sir Henry Ponsonby (Geoffrey Palmer), who had had the management of the Queen’s affairs before he came on the scene, and of the Prince of Wales (David Westhead), whose access to his mother he limits as strictly as anyone else’s. Disraeli, however, is a more subtle figure and realizes that Brown’s disingenuousness and genuine concern for the Queen’s well-being can be of use to him, even though, oddly enough, he finds himself as much on the side of the Queen’s well-being as Brown.
The best and most memorable scene comes when Brown drives the Queen to the rather distant house of Bob Grant, a former fellow-gamekeeper on the royal estates, where she is treated (as much as possible) as an ordinary person, even helping to set the table for dinner. This is obviously the first time she has ever performed such a simple domestic task, and at one point Brown has to give her a signal about where to put the spoons. They come back later than expected and rather flushed from the fresh air and perhaps the drink. Sir Henry Ponsonby and Dr. Jenner are first shocked that she has come back late, then even more shocked that she must be “drunk”—until finally it dawns on both that the Queen’s flush might be owing to something else. “Don’t even think about it,” says one to the other.
This is the nearest the film gets to displaying any prurient interest in the story, which seems to me almost a miracle of restraint in this day and age. Instead it carefully interweaves the complex personal and emotional relationship between the two with the considerations of political and state affairs with which it is inevitably bound up. Perhaps the most revealing moment comes when Brown offers to resign her service, and the Queen is forced to beg him to stay. “Promise me you won’t let them send me back,” she says, referring (I suppose) to the obsequious management of her grief Sir Henry and others used to control her before Brown came and bullied her into living again. Perhaps the estrangement which ensues upon Brown’s risking his credit with her by persuading her back into public life in 1868 does not emerge with quite sufficient sharpness, but the general outline is clear enough, and the ending touches just the right note.
A film well worth seeing.