Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mrs. Brown


We began shooting the opening number of Flying Down to Reno yesterday. This establishing song, Another Suitcase and Another Haul, introduces all the characters who will be flying on board the doomed airliner as they gather in the departure lounge and board the plane. Our director, a recent film school graduate, has decided that the whole number should be filmed by a single camera in a single take leading to a complex seven minute steadicam shot that swoops amongst us all as we sing our verses and dance amongst naugahyde Eames chairs and chrome end tables. If anything goes wrong, we have to start over from the top with a new take. Margo Channing, who only has to sing 'Where's My Drink?', flubbed her line four times yesterday, necessitating setting up the whole shot again. I’m pretty sure she'd found it given the rosiness of her complexion.

The Virtually Vicki infomercial, featuring all of those glamorous MNM brand products, has run twice more late night on Lifetime and once on Oxygen. Orders are starting to come in from frustrated housewives and mothers all over America. Who wouldn’t want a little bit of my unparalleled personal style in their humdrum lives. Lesterene Brand Pineapple/Spam facial cleanser in the 32 ounce economy size is proving to be exceptionally popular and GAC cosmetics needs to cook up another batch to meet demand. GAC is sending a 747 direct to Honolulu to pick up both major ingredients. Another big seller is a white VickiWear dress inspired by The Belle of Amherst. Apparently the Southern Baptist Convention has put in an order for three hundred of them. Something about the Victorian era lines.

As Victoriana was crossing my mind, I decided to spend a little time with the original Victoria Regina in the home theater. I therefore put on the DVD of Mrs. Brown which had recently arrived from Netflix. The film stars Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as John Brown, her devoted servant and, some say, secret lover. The film dramatizes events from the middle period of her long reign.

The film opens in 1864; Victoria's beloved husband, Prince Albert, has been dead of typhoid fever some three years and yet the queen remains isolated and in mourning. The ossified rituals of the Victorian court continue around her and no one, not her family, not her servants, not her advisors, dare to interrupt or intrude on the queen's grief, even though her absence from public life is spelling trouble for Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Anthony Sher) and leading to rising republican sentiment. The royal household, headed by Henry Ponsonby (Geoffrey Palmer), decide some exercise and fresh air might help and John Brown, a gamekeeper and servant to the late Prince Albert at the Scottish retreat, Balmoral, is sent for. Brown arrives and takes no guff from anyone, least of all the queen, treating her as a human and a woman. Slowly, she warms to the uncouth Brown, who calls her 'woman' and a diffident relationship of sorts begins, as he leads her out of her shell.

The film covers the nearly twenty years that Brown remained in service to the royal household, until his death from pneumonia in 1883. He is portrayed as a likeable fellow, but flawed. His influence over the queen alienates him from his fellow servants (including his brother, Archie (Gerard Butler)), makes him somewhat arrogant and power hungry, and drives the other royals and courtiers mad. Most upset is the Prince of Wales (David Westhead) who feels that it is he who should most have his mother's confidence. Moves are made against Brown, but both he and the queen continue their unusual relationship despite the problems, each getting something from the other.

Historically, the exact nature of Victoria's relationship with Brown is a bit of a mystery. Scandalmongers of the day did indeed refer to her as 'Mrs. Brown', due to the almost spousal quality of their relationship. His meticulous diary, which might have cleared up the questions, disappeared after his death (suppressed by the courtiers to protect the queen?). There's no evidence that they were ever intimate and the film doesn't try to answer the question but lets the audience decide for themselves. The relationship ultimately reminds me most of The King and I - Two adults who love each other but cannot act upon it because of cultural, social and political differences. In this way, the film is very different from most Hollywood romances. Director John Madden and writer Jeremy Brock are not afraid to disappoint audience expectation for a romantic resolution but look for a more oblique and adult exploration of friendship and love.

Judi Dench received an Oscar nomination for her Victoria, and this is one of two movie roles (the other being M in the Pierce Brosnan Bond films) that finally brought this long established British actress to American attention. Those who follow the world of London theater have long known of Ms. Dench's talents and abilities to dominate a scene, even with her diminutive size. Her Victoria is prim and hard edged, but with a very human vulnerability under the shellacked exterior. Billy Connolly is her match as Brown. Best known as a comedian, he delivers a ferocious performance as the untamed highland Scotsman who will protect his 'woman', no matter what the cost. These two so dominate the film that, when scenes occur without either one of them, things seem to slow down to a crawl, especially the scenes in parliament where Disraeli and Gladstone are battling it out. Mid nineteenth century British politics does not exciting cinema make.

Director Madden makes good use of location, especially the Scottish highlands, to evoke time and mood. He also finds interesting ways to illustrate the differences between the two protagonists. When Victoria goes swimming, for instance, she's in a black bathing dress from neck to ankle, complete with bonnet. Brown, on the other hand, races into the waves in the nude. He and writer Brock also don't feel compelled to connect all the dots, but rather leave things questionable and open ended, they way they are in life.

The DVD contains no extras other than the theatrical trailer. The picture is in wide screen and the sound in surround stereo. There do not appear to be any major problems with the transfer.

Bathing machines. Smashed bust. Formal luncheons. Sketching on the moors. Naked Billy Connolly. No naked Judi Dench. Gratuitous ladies in waiting. Assassination attempt. Petulant Prince of Wales. Shocked servants. Gratuitous back benchers. Hemophilia references.

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