Queen Victoria wasn't what she appeared to be.
We're used to imagining her an old battle-ax, her hair in a gray bun. We picture the queen who, in her 64 years on the thrown, presided over unbelievable world changes: the Industrial Revolution, the advent of electricity, the blossoming of the British Empire. The queen who announced, grimly, "We are not amused."
The truth is, though, that Victoria had red as well as blue blood.
Married as a young woman to her cousin Albert, a German prince, she loved him passionately and wholeheartedly (they had nine children). When he died, the queen fell apart. She went into mourning, and didn't come out of it.
Until along came John Brown, a hale Scott summoned to Windsor Castle to oversee all the queen's horses - and wound up as her best friend, and perhaps more than that.
No one's sure exactly what went on between them, though political cartoonists had a field day, referring to the queen as "Mrs. Brown."
The movie has a Masterpiece Theatre earnestness, with titles advising us, "1865," "1867," etc. It has a text book beginning and ending. But the movie has a lushness about it, conjuring up the England of gaslight and carriages. The actors are wonderful.
You can't help but be swept up in it.
As Victoria, revered British actress Judi Dench succeeds at a tough task: to portray the queen as a widely worshipped lady and, simultaneously, a human being.
It wasn't necessarily good to be the queen. Victoria can't interact with people in a normal manner. No one speaks to her unless she speaks first. Everywhere she goes, she makes people nervous.
She navigates the palace ringed by a gaggle of somber ladies-in-waiting. One hilarious scene shows them walking down a hallway. Every time Victoria pauses to look out a window, the ladies sweep to a halt, too, craning their necks like plump, synchronized black swans.
Imagine putting up with that day in and day out.
No wonder that when John Brown (Billy Connolly) appears, he hits the queen like a gust of bracing Highland air. Prickly as a thistle, he alienates courtiers, and Victoria herself, when he candidly tells the grief-sodden queen, "Eeh did not expect to see ye in such a state."
Against the will of everyone - including Victoria - he parks himself in the castle's courtyard, a white horse by his side, hoping to persuade the housebound monarch to go out riding and get some exercise.
After a few days, his plan works - and as they take their daily exercise, monarch and servant fall into an easy sexy familiarty.
"Lift yer foot, woman," he tells her as he helps her mount the horse. Everyone is shocked - but the queen smiles. That hints at what might have been Victoria's central problem. Her husband, the only person who saw her as a woman, was gone.
Sensing that the queen needs time out, Brown spirits her off to Balmoral, the Scottish retreat Prince Albert had built. They lapse into a routine of riding, talking, kicking back.
Billy Connolly is in real life a loud, boisterous comedian. Guffawing, guzzling whiskey and even skinny dipping (though not, mind you, with Victoria), his John Brown gives the movie a shot of energy. By no means immune to ego, the Highlander can't resist lording it over the other servants, even usurping the head butler's place at table. He sets tongues wagging wherever he goes.
He's far from perfect, but it's easy to see what Victoria sees in him. For the first time since Albert died, she finds herself having a good time. Hilarity peaks when Brown takes her to visit backwoods Scottish commoners. So nervous are their hosts that Victoria sets the table. (Hesitating, she glances at Brown, who nods slightly to indicate to her what side of the plate the spoon goes on.)
They revel into the night, with Brown telling rough jokes, laughing that huge laugh and refilling Victoria's glass. By the time the carriage brings her home, Victoria's eyes are shining like a bride's. "The queen is drunk!" mutters her disapproving secretary, Henry Ponsonby (the delightfully stuffy Geoffrey Palmer).
Ponsonby doesn't like what he sees. Even if the queen's relationship with Brown were to go no further than friendship, still it runs contrary to protocol. Similarly outraged is the antsy and whiny Crown Prince Albert (David Westhead), at whom Brown yells things like: "You've bothered your mother enough! Leave her alone!"
Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (Antony Sher) has his own stake in the affair. Victoria's absence from the public eye is turning citizens against his pro-monarchy Tory party.
The wily but likable Disraeli, who knows and feeds Victoria's need for flattery and attention, all but steals the show. He speaks of the queen (or, as he says, "the old girl") with humor but also affection. He handles Brown gingerly as he tries to win his cooperation in persuading Victoria to return to Windsor Castle and public life. Making a supreme sacrifice, he even dons a Sherlock Holmes coat and accompanies Brown on a long, soggy, miserable hunt. (Don't miss the fleeting moment when the foppish prime minister squeamishly declines the honor of shooting the stag.)
On a hillside, Disraeli and Brown have a revealing conversation.
"No loyalty," Brown mutters, decrying other members of the queen's staff.
"No love," Disraeli corrects him gently, watching his face.
Love is at the center of the whole story, as Brown becomes more and more caught up with Her Majesty, and the queen fights advisers who would prefer she back off from him. "Without you," Victoria tells Brown, "I cannot find the strength to be what I have to be."
We keep waiting for the denouement. Do the queen and the Scot harbor a hidden passion for each other? Could it be that someday, as they're riding in the heather, Brown could steal a royal kiss? Or do they just share a passionate friendship, a phenomenon more common in Victorian times than now? We get the sense of the world closing in on them, leaving them little time alone.
The romance is very subtle, very Victorian. Every touch of the hand, every flicker of the eyes is worth analyzing. And in today's cinematic universe, where couples fall into bed scant minutes after meeting, it's a refreshing change of pace, if you ask me.
Speaking of modern movies, I'm going to say something irreverent.
"Mrs. Brown" is like a thinking man's "The Bodyguard." Both movies feature dizzyingly famous women, strong but in need of protection -- Whitney Houston's pop singer in "The Bodyguard," Queen Victoria in "Mrs. Brown." Both women have the tough "common man" type watching over her -- Kevin Costner in one movie, John Brown in the other.
To give Houston a break, Costner takes her to visit his family in the woods. To give Victoria a break, Brown takes her to visit his friends in the Highlands. Both kingpin women delight in discovering what the simple folk do.
Costner protests when Houston wants to perform, unprotected, at the Grammy Awards. Brown protests when the queen wishes to ride, unprotected, in an open carriage. Costner heroically deflects would-be assassins, and so does Brown, dashing out to tackle a gun-toting maniac.
Both bodyguards face opposition in their devotion to their employers; and both bodyguards, defying class and convention, stir their employers' secret feelings.
So what if it's an old story? It's still interesting, especially when it's true.
Even the queen would be amused.
Rating: *** 1/2
True story about the controversial relationship between Queen Victoria and her Highland horseman.
With Judi Dench, Billy Connolly and Antony Sher. Directed by John Madden.
Rated PG, opening Friday in area theaters.