by Cathleen Myers

Despite its mundane title Mrs. Brown is perhaps the most beautiful love story of the year - the story of a close friendship which may have eventually blossomed into love between the widowed Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her "Highland servant" John Brown (Billy Connolly), who persuades the Queen to take an interest in life again. He becomes first her most trusted servant, then her most trusted friend. Was it love? Certainly there was considerable gossip about the pair, including rumors of both a secret love affair and a secret marriage between the lonely Widow of Windsor and the handsome, virile Highlander (hence the film’s title).

Judi Dench’s Victoria is a brave performance - showing the queen’s regal dignity and utter charm toward her subjects and her occasional callous cruelty toward her family. Connolly - better known as a comedian than a romantic lead - is a pleasant surprise as John Brown, radiating strength, manly devotion and humor. It is a performance very much from Brown’s point of view: Ambitious for his own advancement at first, Brown eventually begins to take charge of the Household Below-stairs, as he becomes convinced that no one but himself is competent to provide the Queen’s security, threatened as she is by both sensation-seeking journalists and photographers (nihil novum!) and assassins.

As one would expect from a Miramax film, this one is visually beautiful with handsome, accurate mid-Victorian costumes, impeccable sets, and breath-taking Highland scenery. Who can blame Her Majesty for loving Balmoral so much? Into this idyllic scene comes flamboyant Prime Minister Disraeli (another superb performance) who to save both the Conservative Party and the monarchy, must persuade the Queen to leave Balmoral. The urbane and urban politician’s adventures as he tries to endure a weekend in the Highland wilderness are British humor at its best.

There are a few historical glitches that the research editor should have caught: Victoria calls for "a mass" to celebrate the Prince of Wales’ recovery from his near-fatal bout of Typhoid. No self-respecting middle-of-the-road Anglican like the Queen would refer to a church "service" as a "mass." It’s almost incredible to imagine John Brown, who was not suicidal, slamming the Prince of Wales against the wall, however much he would have liked to (Brown actually did have an altercation once with the prince’s younger brother Alfred at a Ghillie’s Ball - but had the good sense to apologize). Finally, while there are certainly parallels between the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and Princess Alexandra, even in appearance, Alix was certainly not anorexic. The Ghillie’s Ball scene, on the other hand, is simply glorious (and, yes, Queen Victoria could country-dance with daring abandon - as she does here).

What the film lets us glimpse but never see is the pain and sorrow of Victoria’s younger children - the three young Princesses Helena, Louise and Beatrice and Princes Arthur and Leopold - five nice, gifted children who suddenly found themselves deprived of a loving, concerned father and left in the care of an undemonstrative mother. The Princess and Princess of Wales escaped into their social life, Arthur (her favorite) eventually escaped into a successful army career and Helena into an arranged marriage with a ridiculous middle-aged prince; but for the others, there was no real escape from their gilded cage. To get the other side of the story, rent the BBC miniseries Lillie.

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