Monday, August 30, 2004

Reviews: "Victoria & Albert" (2001) (TV miniseries) and "Mrs. Brown" (1997)

Although the monarchs of old did not withstand the scrutiny and paparazzi that the current royal families do, their private lives were none-the-less the business of far too many people, many of whom worked for them. Queen Victoria, the matriarch of the British Empire who ruled for over six decades, was beloved by her people, so much in fact that she was nearly smothered by it. There have been two major filmed looks into the life of Queen Victoria in recent years, and one conveniently segues into the other, providing an interesting portrait.

"Victoria & Albert" begins shortly before she attained the throne in 1837. Victoria (Victoria Hamilton) is only 18 when she inherits the throne of England from her now deceased uncle King William IV. Her assimilation into her new job is slow but gentle. Her advisors take her hand and lead her through her now daily duties. After her first two years on the throne, her advisors endeavor to find her a husband, and they find a likely candidate in Prince Albert (Jonathan Firth) of Germany. The two shortly thereafter marry, and Albert finds himself in the awkward position of being a husband with no real duties. And this is just the first of his concerns.

The film puts aside politics almost entirely in favor of the growing love story. Albert married Victoria more for power and social advancement than anything else, and he was advised that love would come later. Victoria, on the other hand, was madly in love with him and had her suspicions of his real feelings towards her. In the end, they both practice a lot of patience in order to get what they want, and it ended up making one of the strongest royal marriages that the British have ever seen.

I have to say that, for a 200 minute miniseries, this film seemed awfully short. It seemed that there were too many thing being left unexplored. Even the children, who get a perfunctory introduction during a Christmas scene, all but disappear save eldest Bertie, who goes through the motions of a standard troubled youth subplot. I would have liked to have seen more of Victoria, as the film seemed to be more about her husband at times. Even the bookend segments, from which the story unfolds as Victoria's flashback, seemed short and slight. The character of Albert was the more interesting due to his awkward position as the Queen's husband, but I felt there was much more to Victoria's story than what was shown.

"Mrs. Brown" picks up several years after Albert's death. Victoria (Judi Dench) had famously remained in mourning in perpetuity, and instructed her staff to dress appropriately. Her advisors have begun to worry for her and soon hire a Scotsman who was a favorite of Albert's in order to take care of the horses and coax the Queen into taking in some fresh air. John Brown (Billy Connolly) is all for it, perhaps even more so than the advisors. Mr. Brown turns out to be a very stubborn and arrogant sonfoabitch, indeed. Almost immediately, he takes steps to become the Queens chief confidant and servant. He takes the place at the head of the servant's table and orders other people around, including the Queen's son. He devotes himself utterly to her, approaching a level of paranoia later in his life.

If Victoria's staff were nervous about a German prince possibly meddling with state affairs, one can imagine how they felt about John Brown. Brown succeeds in drawing Victoria out of her funk, albeit without a change in mourning clothes. Victoria begins to see him as an extension of Albert as he is the only one brave enough to question her prolonged mourning. It was this ability and enthusiasm to challenge her that she heavily relied on, until he made one request too many, and he was downgraded to just one of the servants. We do not see how this affects Victoria, but John Brown takes his broken heart and simply devotes himself to her even more, hoping that the devotion itself is enough for him to go on.

Judi Dench, the grand Dame of British film, can play a queen in her sleep. Billy Connolly, however, is the one that really shines. The former stand up comedian has gone into more and more interesting waters acting-wise in his progressing career. Although the second film is named for Victoria (rather, the mocking nickname that people gave her after she began her controversial relationship), I find myself more intrigued with Mr. Brown. Much like Victoria's staff, the audience finds itself asking, "Who is this mad Scotsman?". It's a fair question. What makes him intriguing is that we never really get to know him completely. He's a three dimensional man who's motives, aside from serving his queen, are not clear. Did he see himself as merely a subject, best friend or defacto husband? Trying to read this man is the most enjoyable aspect of the film, and Connolly makes it possible.

Queen Victoria ended up having two strong men in her life, ones that she turned to for solace, comfort, advice and trust. We learn a great deal about them and a little less about the Queen. I'm very glad to have met Albert and John, but they have had their day in the sun. I yearn now to learn more about Victoria herself.

"Victoria & Albert" - Seven out of Ten
"Mrs. Brown" - Eight out of Ten

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