Victoria's Secret Review: In 'Mrs. Brown,' the great queen, so often caricatured as a bore, comes to life with a servant's help.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Queen Victoria is in a funk, and Britain is not amused.

The year is 1864. Victoria's been queen for 26 years, but of more pressing import, she's been a widow for three. Ever since Prince Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha died of typhoid, Victoria's been holed in Windsor Castle, not seeing anyone, not governing, barely living. Britain is slipping into a constitutional crisis, support is growing for an end to the monarchy, and still Victoria fails to respond.

Something needs to be done. And the man to do it is John Brown, a Scotsman who tended the Royal Family's horses when Albert was alive, befriending both him and his wife, the Queen. Maybe, the Royal Court suspects, Brown can ease Victoria out of her stupor.

That he does, in ways that shocked the country and may have saved its government.

"Mrs. Brown" is an intimate story of a sexless love affair, a meeting of two souls who need each other in every possible way but carnally. It's also an acting showcase, an intricately crafted tale of the machinations of power (both political and familial) and an engaging primer on 19th-century British politics.

A rambunctious Highlander who has little time for unnecessary XTC propriety, Brown (Billy Connolly) hits Windsor like a bombshell. Tradition dictates that the Queen (Judi Dench) be shown total deference: Speak only when spoken to, never look her straight in the eye, always walk or ride behind her (even if it means backing up occasionally), always refer to her as "Your Majesty."

Unless, of course, you're John Brown. Then, you address Queen Victoria, to her face, as "Woman" (and quietly delight in the raised eyebrows). You bring her horse around for a ride, even when she hasn't made such a request. And you dismiss the pleadings of her sycophant physician that any exertion would be detrimental to the Queen's health. Nope, you take her riding, convince her to go swimming, even take her out (alone!) for a daylong visit with some common folk.

Which is exactly what the Queen needs. She responds by slowly crawling out of her shell, a little too slowly, it seems, for Benjamin Disraeli (scene-stealer Antony Sher), the wily Conservative prime minister who loves England, the monarchy and himself.

Appalled that the Queen's absence is fueling the anti-monarchy movement he so abhors, Disraeli recruits Brown to give Victoria that final push and convince her to assume once again the reigns of government.

Dench, a British actress perhaps most recognizable as M in the latest James Bond film, "Goldeneye," brings to life a woman history has turned into a caricature of pomposity and humorlessness. There's a gravity and regal bearing to Dench's Victoria, but there's also an entirely believable twinkle deep behind it all that a lesser actress could never have pulled off.

As Brown, Connolly only faintly resembles the broad comedian TV audiences know from "Head of the Class" and "Pearl." His performance manages to make non-conformity look both dignified and daring, not an easy combination.

Historians have long debated whether there were sexual relations between Victoria and Brown -- the latter left behind no known journals -- but director John Madden and screenwriter Jeremy Brock properly view such questions as beside the point.

What is important is the mutual dependence that developed between Victoria and Brown, for whom her safety -- both mental and physical -- becomes his obsession. The result is one of history's most poignant love stories, between two people who may never have so much as kissed.

'Mrs. Brown'

Directed by John Madden

Starring Judi Dench and Billy Connolly

Released by Miramax

Rated PG (brief nudity)

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 8/01/97

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