Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Kingdom

King Charles’ coronation last Saturday brought out the Anglophile part of me that’s fascinated by the British monarchy, its triumphs and its troubles. Queen Victoria had never been a particular favorite of mine—she has always seemed stuffy and dull—but a recent visit to Kensington Palace that featured an exhibit on her difficult girlhood showed me she was more interesting, and much stronger, than I had expected. So, as my own idiosyncratic way of celebrating the formal installation of the new king, I watched a 1997 British drama called Mrs. Brown (also known as Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown) that details a surprising relationship in Victoria’s later life It is not to be confused with Victoria & Abdul (2017),  about the elderly queen’s relationship with a male Indian Muslim servant. Obviously if you’re a woman who from 1837 to 1901 has ruled over the most powerful empire on earth, you have time for a good many surprising relationships.

 In both Mrs. Brown and Victoria & Abdul, the role of the queen is taken by the formidable Judi Dench, who has made something of a specialty of playing regal types. She won her Oscar in 1998 for playing Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, in a role that was scarcely eight minutes long. Remarkably, she was convincing as the imperious Virgin Queen despite looking in no way similar to the tall, slim Elizabeth. But I suspect that physically Victoria much better suits her petite, slightly plump frame. Her performance in Mrs. Brown too was much admired, leading to her first Oscar nomination: there have been eight in all.

 Playing opposite her is Billy Connolly, a Scottish actor once known for his raw stand-up comedy chops. His rough-and-tumble role is that of John Brown, a Scotsman who had once tended the horses for Victoria’s beloved late husband, Albert. Following the early death of Albert at age 42, Victoria has retreated to Scotland to mourn, presiding over a retinue of servants and hangers-on while turning her back on any royal duties. It is as part of a pact to lure her back to public life that Connolly is brought into her sphere. He makes quite a sight among the black-clad courtiers, wearing a kilt and his hair in a pigtail. Her royal highness first tolerates him because of Albert’s fondness for him, but then quickly succumbs to his blustering, bantering ways. Soon they are riding out in the highlands, and leading the dancing in Balmoral’s ancient halls. There’s no suggestion in the film that theirs is a romantic (o, heaven forfend, a sexual) relationship, but rather a deeply affectionate friendship that bypasses the difference in their public status.

 It's clear to see that Victoria enjoys this respite from her public obligations and this distraction from her private grief. Brown’s motives can more easily be questioned. As someone who came to the British throne before she was 20, Victoria obviously revels in the chance to be girlish. As for Brown, the film shows that his role at her side feeds an already healthy ego: he certainly takes the opportunity to lord it over the others who dwell in the servants’ hall. Still, there seems a selflessness in his loyalty to his sovereign. He makes a mistake or two, but surely seems to have her best interests at heart. Eventually, of course,  his role in her life comes under public scrutiny. When it gives rise to satirical cartoons and jests about “Mrs. Brown,” thus threatening her reputation in Parliament and encouraging republican moves against the monarchy, he knows where his duty lies.


No comments:

Post a Comment