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Victoria's Secrets

Assorted historians are happily butting heads this week over the speculation that dour Queen Victoria may have had big eyes for the earthy Scotsman who tended her horse. For better or worse, that is the premise of Mrs. Brown, a witty nineteenth-century soap opera that shows no fear of offending an earl or two--or of messing about with the conventional wisdom. John Madden's movie is so much fun and so beautifully acted that it will be hard to give a damn if its claims turn out to be bogus.

When first we behold Judi Dench's sublime and severe Queen Vic, it is 1864 and she is three years into what will become a lifetime of mourning for her late husband, Albert. Cloaked in black and in full retreat from her public duties, she has nothing more to do than make life miserable for everyone in her orbit, trusted minister and scullery maid alike. The film's sly narrator--none other than the magnetic prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (Antony Sher)--laments that "we are all prisoners of the queen's grief."

Enter John Brown. A flinty Scot with a luxurious beard, a taste for whiskey and the rough-hewn manner of the Highlands, he's a royal hunting servant summoned to Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, for the express purpose of getting Victoria out of the doldrums and back to business. This, her worried advisors reason, can be accomplished by fresh air and some bracing morning gallops.

Little do they imagine that Brown (played by bawdy TV comedian Billy Connolly) will become, in this interpretation at least, the queen's closest friend, most trusted advisor and--horrors!--a bullying power at court. Scandal and a national crisis can't be far behind, stoked by journalists, cartoonists and gossiping members of Parliament who start derisively calling their absentee queen "Mrs. Brown."

As rookie screenwriter Jeremy Brock would have it, the devoted Mr. Brown didn't exactly transform his queen into a merry widow. But he jolted her out of what Disraeli called her "ferocious introspection" with his lusty disregard for the ossified manners and protocol of the English court. Hoisting the cranky monarch onto her mount--a scene D.H. Lawrence would have savored--Brown addresses her curtly as "woman," and whenever she threatens to slip back into despondency, he shakes her up with the force of his country will. It doesn't take Dr. Freud (then a dreamy lad of ten) to understand the huge appeal she finds in that, and it doesn't take Dr. Ruth to figure out that when romantic sparks fly between the monarch and her servant, they must be doused: Victoria may or may not have been a little more of a party girl than we all imagined, but her England was, well, Victorian--no place for stable hands and monarchs to mingle in the physical sense.

"I cannot live without you," the haughty queen at last admits, "cannot find the strength to be who I must be." This, of course, is the kind of supposition that has historians flipping out.

Let 'em flip. Despite what Oliver Stone may think, movies are not substitutes for history books. If Messrs. Brock and Madden (Ethan Frome, Golden Gate) want to fool around with the facts, as their opponents say they have, there's no good reason why they shouldn't. Two other royal epics of recent vintage, Restoration and The Madness of King George, probably don't withstand historical scrutiny any better than Mrs. Brown, but that doesn't disqualify them as first-rate entertainments. Where would movies be if Cecil B. DeMille played slave to the Scriptures on the set of The Ten Commandments?

As it is, Dame Judi, one of the great Shake-spearean actresses of the century, gives us a vivid new take on a figure most of us stereotyped long ago as the forbidding ice queen who set the tone for four generations of social repression--on both sides of the Atlantic. True or false, what we get here is a full-blooded portrait of the last great European monarch, troubled less by the affairs of state than by those of the heart. In the film's view, Brown and Victoria's unconsummated love affair, fraught with ironies, nearly brought the British crown down altogether (an idea that still has currency in the day of bonny Prince Charles, self-proclaimed tampon) and stopped the expansion of the British Empire dead in its tracks (another good idea before its time).

So even if we don't care to believe that Victoria Regina once kissed her stable man's hand in the privacy of a wooded glade (and he hers), Mrs. Brown still provides political intrigues of a high order, in which the supporting players (all superbly played) include Sher's acerbic and calculating Disraeli, his liberal-minded nemesis William Gladstone (offscreen) and, last and certainly least, Victoria's vain and foolish son Bertie (David Westhead), the Prince of Wales, who's the very portrait of inbreeding gone awry. To watch the loyal (if obstreperous) Mr. Brown push this awful twit around Windsor Castle is sheer delight.

If the entire enterprise sounds a little like an episode of Masterpiece Theatre, that's because the folks from Masterpiece Theatre are co-producers of this regal melodrama, and while they may not have produced a masterpiece, they are to be commended for backing a provocative, highly intelligent take on the dominant figure of Britain's nineteenth century, spiked with wit and held aloft by panache.

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