Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Victoria Regina

Film: Mrs. Brown (Her Majesty Mrs. Brown)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I don’t always do so well with period dramas. Sometimes I like them but they frequently leave me cold. The Merchant-Ivory style of film doesn’t do a lot for me in general. With Mrs. Brown (sometimes called Her Majesty Mrs. Brown), I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. I knew nothing going in, really, other than that it stars Judi Dench, who I tend to like, and Billy Connolly, who I tend to think is one of the coolest human beings currently on the planet. Call it a wash going in.

This is the story of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her period of mourning after the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Their marriage, which spanned something north of 20 years, was apparently a very happy one, which is a rare thing for monarchs. The death of Albert sent Victoria into a spiral of depression that lasted for a long time. In desperation, John Brown (Billy Connolly) is sent for. Brown was a loyal servant to Albert, and the hope was that he would help draw her out again.

As it happened, it worked too well. Brown soon becomes Victoria’s favorite, not merely among the servants but in general. Brown takes it upon himself to toss the carefully arranged lives of Victoria’s servants. Worse, the sudden ubiquitous nature of Brown in Victoria’s life begins a number of rumors. Many, including some in the government, start referring to the Queen as “Mrs. Brown,” with rumors even circulating that the two had married in private. That may not seem like a big deal today, but in the middle of the 19th century, there were class issues to deal with, and a queen cavorting with a servant was unheard of and scandalous.

Additionally, all of this happens at a time when the monarchy was in some peril from the British government. Victoria’s long absence and mourning and her relationship with Brown along with rising anti-monarchy sentiment in the government makes the situation grim. Only the illness of her son and future king Albert brings Victoria out of hiding once again, but not before a terrible confrontation with Brown over her resuming public life.

Mrs. Brown is hardly a thrill ride of a film, but it’s not intended to be one. It is very much a sort of drawing room drama, and also a very tame romance. This is not a love that we see consummated in much of any respect. The entire film moves on the relationship between Brown and Victoria. The political intrigues are surprisingly interesting for machinations that occurred 150 years ago. Part of this comes from the excellent work by Antony Sher as Victoria’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. But an equal part of this is the role of the other servants who are concerned less for the queen and more for their own status and position. This is particularly true of Henry Ponsonby (Geoffrey Palmer) and Doctor Jenner (Richard Pasco). Much of the film turns on the two main performances. It’s Judi Dench who got the Oscar nomination here, and in my opinion, she’s never out of the running for most of the roles she takes. She’s great here, but that’s hardly a surprise since Judi Dench is pretty much the definition of awesome. I’m mildly surprised that Billy Connolly didn’t get the love come Oscar time. Connolly is one of the great comedians of our time (check out his stand-up if you get the chance), but as an actor he brings particular gravitas to the role of John Brown. This performance, like a number of others that have come before it, lends credence to the idea that comedians often make good dramatic actors, even if the reverse is not the case.

I tend to write longer reviews than this one, but Mrs. Brown is a bit of a cipher in that respect. There isn’t much to say about it beyond the principle performances. It’s good, it’s solid, and I can’t claim to have been bored watching it. It’s even got a pretty much unrecognizable Gerard Butler playing Brown’s brother Archie. But it’s not a film that needs to be seen a second time, and except for completists or fans of Judi Dench, I’m not sure it really needs to be seen a first time.

Why to watch Mrs. Brown: A rather beautiful and tragic sort of romance.
Why not to watch: Class distinctions suck.


  1. I really enjoyed Mrs. Brown and was surprised when friends told me it was very boring (I'd recommended it when it hit home video). It's pretty slow moving, yet I found myself really interested in both of the main characters. It's been a while since I watched it, but the performances are what really stand out like you mention.

    1. It's probably better than I've given it credit for being. I like both of the characters, but there was something about this that felt a little sterile to me. I had a hard time engaging with it emotionally.

  2. I liked this one, too. I saw it when it came out for rental. At the time I had only seen Connolly in stand up routines so I went in wondering what the heck he was doing in a key role of what was supposed to be a serious drama. He really impressed me with his work on this.

    1. That seems to happen a lot with comedians, though. In the commentary track of Serenity, early in the film Joss Whedon mentions (in reference to Michael Hitchcock) how much he likes putting comic actors in serious roles because of how good they tend to be making that move.

      Connolly's stand up, by the way, is very much worth watching.