Elizabeth and Mrs. Brown (review)

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What’s Love Got to Do With It?

[Spoilers — unless you already know your British history]

Tina Turner got it right. Love just makes you a mess, and it definitely interferes with your authority. Especially if you’re a powerful and independent woman. Probably only if you’re a woman — male presidents, CEOs, and monarchs juggle wives and mistresses with no problems (even all the twirling of Ken Starr’s mustache hasn’t undone Bill Clinton).

Perhaps the difference is that powerful men usually choose to fool around with silly, unambitious women. Strong women, on the other hand, want equals. And that’s where the trouble starts.
The virgin queen
Queen Elizabeth was undoubtedly one of Britain’s most powerful sovereigns — her reign is now called the empire’s Golden Age. Where did her resolve come from? Well, for one thing, early on she put men and all their treachery — romantic and political — out of her mind.

Elizabeth — covering just the first few years of her long reign — is history the way they should have taught it in school, full of sex, violence, intrigue, and fabulous wardrobes. Young Elizabeth (a riveting Cate Blanchett, from Oscar and Lucinda), daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, ascends the throne when her half-sister Mary Tudor (Kathy Burke) dies without leaving an heir. She finds an array of men at court, from the villainous Duke of Norfolk (an almost terrifying Christopher Eccleston) to the paternal Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough), ready to subvert her authority directly through attempted assassination or subtly as “helpful” royal advisors. The country’s bishops — Catholic and Protestant — war with one another but agree on one thing: Protestant Elizabeth is in great danger of being violently removed from the throne of Catholic Britain until she marries and produces an heir.

Ah, but also at court is her lover and dear friend, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes, Ralph’s brother), whom the other men reluctantly granted a place among her council. He’s totally unsuitable as a husband for the queen, of course. Her male advisors suggest an alliance with the king of France or perhaps the Duc d’Anjou (Vincent Cassel), nephew of Queen Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant), who’s conquered Scotland and could use some appeasing. (Mary, by the way, is an authoritative woman who comes to no good end thanks to some male attention that she courts.)

Elizabeth considers d’Anjou, purely for political reasons, but, needless to say, when she discovers that he’s into crossdressing, she tables him. But she’s heartbroken to discover that studly Dudley, the rat, is already married. (Oh, and he was boinking one of her ladies-in-waiting, too.) And that decides her. Though he declares that it’s her he loves, that she is still “his Elizabeth,” she rejects him. In probably the film’s most arresting moment, before the full court she blasts him and anyone else who thinks they can control her: “I am no man’s Elizabeth.”

The only man who seems truly an ally is the mysterious Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), appointed to guard the queen against all comers. Ironically, or perhaps by thematic necessity, any affection he has for her is demonstrated from afar, as he skulks the palace, never quite at her side, keeping his ears open for signs of perfidy.

And she needs Walsingham’s protection. The Catholic Pope (John Gielgud) behaves in a rather un-Christian manner in planning Elizabeth’s assassination — can’t have that nasty Protestant on the throne. A messenger travels from Rome to England with letters to an anti-Elizabeth cadre at court, promising a ringside seat in heaven to anyone who kills the queen. The conspirators are rooted out — among them is, yup, Dudley.

That’s when Elizabeth goes, well, a little bonkers. She anoints herself the Virgin Queen — meaning not untouched by men but with no need of men — and declares herself “married to England.”

Not only is that weird and a little sad, but you try getting an entire country to take out the garbage.

Big, bad John
Queen Victoria, I must admit, brings some of her problems upon herself. Three years after her beloved husband Albert died, her household is still in strict mourning, on her orders. “There’s love,” one servant snipes to another, “and there’s behaving like you do because there’s nobody to tell you not to.”

But now there’s someone to tell her to snap out of it. Mrs. Brown is the story of the relationship between the queen (Judi Dench) and John Brown (Billy Connolly), a groundskeeper at Balmoral, the British royal family’s palace in Scotland, and a favorite of Albert’s, whom Victoria calls to her side. At first, he’s a pleasant reminder for her of Albert — later, he becomes her closest friend… and a threat to the monarchy.

John Brown isn’t politically ambitious — his only concern is the queen’s welfare. But he isn’t in the least bit shy when it comes to her well-being. He immediately takes over the queen’s household, ordering the other staff about and taking the head butler’s seat at the top of the table in the servants’ dining room. He’s cheeky, too, addressing Victoria as “woman” and correcting the grammar of the Prince of Wales (David Westhead).

The trouble comes when Victoria begins to put too much store in the outspoken, honest, and loyal Brown — after all, he’s but a wild Highlander from a place “600 miles north of civilization,” according to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Antony Sher). She rides with him, picnics with him, and heeds his advice. The press has taken to spying on them and snidely referring to her as “Mrs. Brown.”

The queen has been withdrawn from public life since Albert’s death — the British public misses her and her political influence wanes to such a degree that in 1867 Parliament passes a bill to disestablish the monarchy. And on top of that, this “Mrs. Brown” business is simply too much for Tories like Disraeli, the Prince of Wales, and royal advisor Henry Ponsonby (Geoffrey Palmer). Plot as they might, however, they can’t get rid of Brown — in fact, his influence is finally what draws her out of her mourning.

The British monarchy, of course, wasn’t disestablished. But forever concerned about Brown’s influence on the queen, her advisors and hangers-on made sure that they erased as much of Brown’s existence as they could — his diary was never found, destroyed, Mrs. Brown suggests, by Ponsonby, after Brown’s death.

The film makes clear that Brown and Victoria loved each other, but only hints at anything more than platonic. Nevertheless, Mrs. Brown demonstrates, once again, that cozying up to a man is nothing but trouble for a powerful woman.

[reader comments on this review]

viewed at a public multiplex screening

Mrs. Brown
viewed at home on a small screen

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