Mrs. Brown

on July 18, 1997 by Wade Major
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   Since the day when Shakespeare first put pen to paper, the English monarchy and drama have been gloriously intertwined, and nowhere with more aplomb and majesty than in the cinema. Director John Madden's magnificent "Mrs. Brown," however, stands as more than just another addition to the catalog. With grace, wit and unerring sensitivity, this literate telling of Queen Victoria's scandalous friendship with loyal Scottish servant John Brown ranks as one of the finest and most human portraits of any monarch ever to grace the silver screen.
   The year is 1864, already three years into an incapacitating depression of Victoria ("GoldenEye's" Judi Dench) over the loss of her beloved Albert, when royal hunting guide and equestrian caretaker Brown ("Indecent Proposal's" Billy Connolly) enters the picture. Bold, bawdy and uncommonly outspoken, Brown immediately offends both the Queen and her household with his rough manner, although time soon softens the Queen to the Scotsman's unique charms and unorthodox loyalty. This blossoming of Brown's and Victoria's friendship, however, inaugurates yet another crisis as rumors of an affair start to circulate, fanning the fires of parliamentary opposition and threatening the very future of the monarchy.
   Despite a few passing similarities to "The Madness of King George" and "Carrington," "Mrs. Brown" succeeds bravely on its own terms, owing much to freshman scribe Jeremy Brock's outstanding blending of fact and speculation. Director Madden is also in peak form, rebounding from the middling reaction earned by his last two feature outings, "Ethan Frome" and "Golden Gate." The engine that really drives the film, of course, is the chemistry between its leads, both of whom could easily find themselves contending for Oscars by year's end. Although the casting of stage legend Dench opposite madcap comic Connolly (best known for his brief TV stint on Head of the Class") might seem eccentric at best, the pair collide on screen with an elegance and passion not seen since O'Toole and Hepburn in "The Lion in Winter." Other contributions in the BBC production are first-rate, with Richard Greatrex's elegant photography and Stephen Warbeck's gentle and moving score being noteworthy standouts. Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, Geoffrey Palmer and Anthony Sher. Directed by John Madden. Written by Jeremy Brock. Produced by Sarah Curtis. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated PG for a beating, language and brief nudity. Running time: 103 min. Screened at Cannes. Opens 7/18 NY/LA
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