Happy Victoria Day to our Canadian readers - and what better time to take a look at the woman behind the Crown, or under it. So for our Saturday date movie here's a highland fling of a most unusual character: The girl is the Queen-Empress; the boy is her loyal servant...
Mrs Brown, the story of Queen Victoria and John Brown, was made twenty years ago - 1997 - and by a quirk of timing was released a week after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. But, even without a helping hand from fate, it seemed designed to invite topical parallels. John Madden's film even has the mid-19th century's equivalent of paparazzi - coarse Fleet Street types in loud check suits, pencils poised, secreted in the heather, in hopes of a long-distance glimpse of Victoria and her game ghillie. The brawny Scot, played by Billy Connolly, scatters the interlopers and gives one of their number a kick in the thistles. But, of course, it doesn't quell the gossip.
Any historical royal drama has its work cut out competing with more recent ones, and not just because contemporary royalty has offered up plot twists self-respecting dramatists would shun. Mrs Brown has a tentativeness towards its royal characterizations which seems all the more amazing in an age in which the columns and airwaves are routinely filled with "royal experts" claiming to know the psychological impulses, sexual needs, marital intentions and parenting abilities of largely private persons they've never ever met. Queen Victoria is a mystery, and, in the end, the film is respectful enough to let her remain one. In doing so, it reminds us that, as subjects of the Crown, we were more mature back then: in the pre-celebrity era, we knew enough to know we didn't know them. Not many did, and certainly not Her Majesty's ministers, who were rarely allowed near her. Mrs Brown opens three years after the Prince Consort's death in 1861, with the Queen (Judi Dench) still in deep mourning and everyone else at Court sunk in deep gloom. Our first sight of Victoria is of the back of her head, the grey hair drawn into a bun. When the camera moves round to the front, her face is even greyer and more drawn; the eyes are dead. In these early scenes, her royal blues seem to have seeped into the very foundations of Osborne House.
At which point, like some Macbeth curse, a walking forest shows up at the palace. Connolly's Brown is essentially a thicket with a Scots accent: it's impossible, except in the nude scene, to tell where his facial hair ends and his sporran begins. By "nude scene", I'm referring to Brown and his brother doing a little skinny-dipping off the Isle of Wight: the film is too discreet to speculate on whether the undoubted love of sovereign and servant found physical expression. As Sir Henry Ponsonby says to her doctor, after the Queen returns one night unusually flushed, "Don't even think it." (Surely a rather contemporary formulation?) On the other hand, Brown and Victoria quickly develop the kind of physical ease that today presupposes sexual knowledge. While everyone else is awed by the Queen-Empress, he is not: "Lift your foot, woman!" he barks, as he eases her into her stirrup.
Ostensibly, this is merely a kilted variation on The King and I or The Sound of Music: the breath of fresh air who liberates a stuffy household. Connolly himself evidently went to De Niroesque lengths for the part: after all, he spent much of the 1980s as ghillie to the Duke and Duchess of York. His role here is as the big, expansive, emotional force in a Court of uptight ninnies. But, in its effort to transform the tale beyond a droll observation of a bizarre relationship, the film insists that Brown not only revitalized her home life but also persuaded the Queen to return to public duties: in one of the script's many curiosities, Victoria even starts referring to "my public", as if she were Marie Lloyd or Nellie Melba.
The Queen's re-emergence marked the inauguration of the modern monarchy, as the physical, visible embodiment of national identity - the start of the canny evolution which, in the 1980s and '90s, accelerated so disastrously out of control. But there's no evidence that it was anything to do with Brown. That's strictly a contemporary gloss - the assumption that a liberated, loosened-up monarch leads to a liberated, loosened-up monarchy. In fact, if not in Madden's film, the real story of Victoria's long seclusion in the Highlands suggests the opposite: that personal fulfillment made it easier for her to ignore her public duties.
But Mrs Brown is oddly determined in its modernity, setting up Antony Sher's archly mocking Disraeli as an anachronistically cynical Balmoral Blackadder. There's a smugness about Madden's view of the isolated Court that eventually grows tiresome, especially in its treatment of the supporting characters - the Prince of Wales is a lisping sissy - and in the careless script's infelicities: Victoria refers to the head of her household as 'Sir Henry Ponsonby' and 'Mr Ponsonby' in successive sentences. A less patronizing film might have pondered whether an obscure, semi-reclusive royal family isn't more attractive for both Crown and subjects alike: after all, the enormous personal popularity of individual royals in the Eighties coincided with a huge rise in republicanism in almost all the present Queen's realms.
Against that must be set the rueful charm of both Connolly and Dench. In a scene both hilarious and tender, they go for dinner to a workers' cottage on the estate at Balmoral, and the Queen kindly offers to lay the table. She then stands helpless, the spoons hovering over the places, until Brown gives her a sly nod to indicate what goes where. A century and a half on, one feels that certainly the Princess Royal or the Duchess of Cambridge or the York daughters would know how to set the table. I'm not sure I could confidently say the same about Chelsea Clinton...
~If you disagree with Mark's movie reviews and you're a Founding Member of The Mark Steyn Club, then feel free to let him know. Founder Membership isn't for everybody, but one thing it does give you is access to our comments section. So, if you take issue with him on Mrs Brown, then have at it below. (Mark even weighs in himself occasionally, as you can see in his reply to Ken Costa here.) For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.