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Queen Scene

Mrs. Brown
Ride, Vicky, Ride: Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) prepares to enter a coach for a jaunt with John Brown (Billy Connolly).

'Mrs. Brown' starts funny, ends flat

By Richard von Busack

QUEEN VICTORIA (Judi Dench), out of her mind with grief at the death of her husband, Albert, secludes herself from the public, an absence that causes much resentment and the beginnings of a crisis. Only a bluff Highland Scot named John Brown (Billy Connolly) dares to intrude upon the queen's mourning; through his attentions, she regains interest in life. How close Brown and the queen became afterward has been a matter of lively speculation ever since. The amusing, even broad performances in director John Madden's version of the affair, Mrs. Brown, can't halt the gradual slowing of the picture into a somber tale of royal ingratitude. Still, American audiences, great devourers of Masterpiece Theater, may only care for the richness of both the syllables and the Victorian settings.

As Brown, Connolly is as ripe as John Cleese when correcting the Prince of Wales' grammar--and as imposing as Sean Connery as he fends off a trio of journalists who are the Victorian equivalent of paparazzi. Connolly is a noted stand-up comic in England, and he demonstrates the typical facility of the comedian doing drama. His character's fall begins in his highhandedness; a simpler movie would have made him a helpless victim of snobs. Dench's Victoria shows the same cold, blue-eyed power that temporarily shriveled Pierce Brosnan's James Bond in GoldenEye. Her portrait evinces enough depth to suggest that it's not just mourning that's immobilized the queen but also an unwillingness to subject herself to the trials of running almost a third of the planet.

As interesting as both Brown and Victoria are, they are completely upstaged by Anthony Sher as Benjamin Disraeli, novelist, conservative, prime minister. Mrs. Brown shows Disraeli during his rise in Parliament, fighting his rival Gladstone's antidisestablishmentarianism (oh, how I've longed for a legitimate reason to use that word) as well as Gladstone's bid to dissolve the monarchy. Sher's Disraeli is conniving, theatrical and slick. When he puts the full force of his charm against Victoria, she's mesmerized and wavers a little, like a oyster sprayed with lemon juice. Disraeli's secret, unlike Brown's, is knowing the correct way of taking the air out of a royal. (The Prince of Wales, who was probably smarter than actor David Westhead makes him look, blusters out a heavy compliment, reminding Disraeli that the Tories have always been "our party." Sher's Disraeli responds with a beautifully dissembling "I'm flattered that the Prince thinks so.")

If you go to Mrs. Brown, prepare for a draggy last half hour, for dull overshadowings of neglect and a deathbed scene. Still, the rest of the movie is solid and witty. Best of all, it draws from that almost untapped reserve of fascinating historical details. Dench as Victoria swimming, her voluminous skirts trailing her as she dog paddles in the river, is a reminder of what a strange and complex world the past is.

Mrs. Brown (PG; 103 min.), directed by John Madden, written by Jeremy Brock, photographed by Richard Greatrex and starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly.

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro.

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