"mrs. brown," a new film about the controversial relationship between Queen Victoria and her Scottish manservant, John Brown, won't rescue either the Victorians or costume movies from accusations of stuffiness. If certain Italian operas banish all action (wars, murders, suicide, you name it) from the stage while placing passion front and center, "Mrs. Brown" reverses the formula. Things happen, but the feelings seem blunted and oblique, the characters preoccupied, as if they were saving their emotions for something happening in another movie.
"We are all prisoners of the queen's grief," says Henry Ponsonby, Victoria's personal secretary at the film's beginning. In 1861, when her husband, Prince Albert, died after 21 years of possibly the happiest royal marriage in history, Victoria went into permanent mourning and long-term seclusion. As played by the renowned British stage actress Judi Dench, Victoria is a middle-aged woman, restlessly stalking through ornate hallways, picking at her food and ever on the verge of melting into tears. She summons Brown to her palace at Windsor (his permanent station was at Balmoral, the Royal Family's holiday home in Scotland) because he reminds her of her happier days in the Highlands with Albert.
Brown's unceremonious manners (he calls her "woman") clash with the elaborate protocols of Windsor, but Victoria finds him bracing, and his protective devotion soothes her. He becomes her confidant and friend, and their intimacy earns her the smirking nickname of the film's title. Convinced by Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli that Victoria's withdrawal from public life has endangered the monarchy, Brown grudgingly counsels her to return to an active role in government, and eventually finds himself sidelined.
Victoria and the society she led seem to appeal to director John Madden -- who also made 1993's "Ethan Frome," based on Edith Wharton's novel -- but he can't quite lay his hands upon the era's dramatic potential. The Victorians believed in cultivating a rich, even florid, inner life, while at the same time they considered self-control a supreme virtue. What we, looking back, dismiss as repression, they saw as moral integrity, something deeply felt as right and good, constantly at war with desire. The conflict drove them crazy, but it also fueled the greatest novels in our language.
Victoria was, naturally, the quintessential Victorian, and her monumental grief the flip side of her extravagant love for her husband (she bore him nine children, after all). But Madden's Victoria, exquisitely played though she is by Dench, seems simply depressed and cranky, a monarch in a rut. Madden and screenwriter Jeremy Brock judge the era by its decorous exterior, missing the overheated melodrama within. Their Victoria is what 1960s bon vivants would have labeled "uptight," and Brown intends to loosen her a bit. He badgers her into getting a bit of exercise, escorts her to an informal dinner with some rural neighbors and dances with her to a Highland fling, but their little interlude of domestic tranquillity is just that -- a not especially interesting pause between the gooey wallows of mourning and the high altitude strategizing required to run an empire.
To remind us that Victoria's chronic cocooning threatens her own power, "Mrs. Brown" cuts away to a few brief scenes of raucous parliamentary debate and gossipy London parties, with Anthony Sher's sly Disraeli attempting to hold down the fort. Amused, world-weary and yet animated by a shrewd energy, brandishing his pointed chin like a rapier, he's so invigorating to watch I wanted to reach up to the screen, pluck his jacket sleeve and beg him to stay. "Mrs Brown" has the unfortunate effect of provoking speculation about all the other, much more fascinating movies that could have been made about these people -- the story of Victoria and Albert's marriage and her terrible loss and the tale of Disraeli's rise to power, for two.
It doesn't help that the movie's primary source of juice, Brown's flouting of the stiff court manners that are supposedly burying Victoria alive, peters out midway. By the time he's firmly fixed in her good graces, Brown has become unappealing, a gruff paranoid who browbeats the other servants with an authority that's just as oppressive as the order he's supplanted. Scottish comedian Billy Connolly shows ample ability in the role, but he can't locate much charm in the character. And the audience can't help but hope that Victoria will move on to more exciting activities than picnics and music recitals, which places our interests in direct opposition to Brown's. The movie mostly succeeds at making us impatient with itself.