Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (****) and Victoria & Abdul (***): Two pieces of a life continued

HerMajestyMrs.Brown

Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown – 1997
Victoria & Abdul – 2017

Director (HMMB) John Madden, (V&A) Stephen Frears
Screenplay (HMMB) Jeremy Brock, (V&A) Lee Hall
Starring (HMMB) Judi Dench, Billy Connolly, Antony Sher, Geoffrey Palmer, Richard Pasco, David Westhead, Gerard Butler
(V&A)  Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith

Seeing that Dame Judi Dench had reprised her role as latter-day Victoria 20 years after her first go-round must have been interesting to some. The first film grossed about 9 million world-wide, and this time it’s bordering on 5x that much. The passage of time has helped, one would guess. There is a much deeper appreciation for one of the best actresses of our time. Also, one could guess, there has been a swath of people who enjoyed the first film through other media. After having watched both in one day, I am glad that there can be sequels to movies about a Queen in the twilight of her reign, even if the sequel amounts to a little less of the same.

The first film, Her Majesty Mrs. Brown, is a measure of acting by three actors.

Dench earned an Oscar nomination for her role as Queen Victoria. To be sure, she gives a complete performance here. She’s a woman who’s given everything that she doesn’t quite want and by now mostly expects in her life. The thing she wants most, however, is the her husband. When we see her first, she’s in her third year of mourning Prince Albert. The film immediately brings in someone her husband had an immense fondness for in Scottish servant, John Brown (Connolly). The power of the film is presented in their subtle development of their relationship. It is really quite impressive because Connolly’s Brown is not a subtle man in the slightest.

Running earnestly roughshod through the lives of Victoria and her court, he ruffles feathers and gets panties in a bunch. While he never quite wins over the rest of the household, he certainly does win the affections of the Queen. It is a testament to Madden, Connolly and especially Dench that this never trips into areas that are really unknown. We see that there is genuine affection between both of them, but the public face is never quite revealed. This is the strength of the film and story. The public face of Victoria is never more than propriety, but it is never shown to be someone locked in the castle, either. She is a monarch, to be sure.

For his part, Connolly is incredibly engaging and committed to the performance. That he did not receive more substantial roles as a result of this film is a crime. He shows strength, perception and vulnerability in his role as a man who doesn’t realize he’s reached beyond his station in life. I truly enjoyed Connolly in this and every role I have seen him in and hope that somehow we see more of him.

The third winning performance is that of Antony Sher as Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Sher’s performance is a surprise to me, but apparently not to those who have seen him perform live. His Disraeli is a man of most lethal cunning, kind of Bill Clinton for the time. To be sure, you’d rather have him on your side, than working against you. It’s apparent that he’s got more going on than he reveals no matter to whom he is speaking. His charm, however, is undeniable. It’s born of intelligence that most around him just don’t have. If one compares the way Brown works the rest of the people in his life and is so completely out-maneuvered by Disraeli, the effect is immense and obvious.

To be sure, he is not a villain. He is the prime minister of a country whose constitution requires a monarch. More importantly, his party requires her conservative influence, which is lacking in the years since her husband’s death. Sher reveals all of the measures of these influences, and throws in a little arrogance for good measure. It’s a role I have enjoyed more with the passage of time.

Madden would go on to win an Oscar for directing in his very next film, Shakespeare in Love. He would also achieve modest financial success with many of his films until striking gold with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel. His talent is in coaxing great performances out of good actors and classic performances from great actors. There are some beautiful scenes, but nothing that brings as much wonder as seeing the balance of power shift between Victoria, John, Benjamin and the people that surround them.

His portrayal of the people surrounding The Queen and Brown is more nuanced than one might expect, after years of Julian Fellowes productions come and gone. We are given subtle looks of concern and a smattering of ignorance. More importantly, we see John Brown overstep his bounds among the servants and the family, essentially presenting himself on a perch from which to be knocked off. When he does finally get a beating, two smart things happen. The director doesn’t make it obvious who may have done it and he also doesn’t play pity points for Brown. This only serves to make his relationship with the Queen less black and white. And that is good.

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Somewhat more obvious and less dramatic are the events of Victoria & Abdul. Historians and anglophiles alike were granted a repeat showing of the relationship between Brown and Queen Victoria. In life, it seemed an even more questionable relationship between what was possibly a charlatan and his target demographic: an older, forgotten person. Whether there is a certain truth to it, or it was the product of subtle historic racism is a question worth asking. It’s not a question that is asked as much here.

This time, we see an older, more defeated and seemingly lost Victoria, who confides to missing both her husband and John Smith terribly. This rings curious when one considers how distant she was toward the end of Smith’s life. Dench, however, is up to the task of making us relate to her misery. The opening shows the viewer an old, overweight woman who is being pushed through each day. The scene in the dining hall is a comic masterpiece, from the little boy running screaming his head off, to the adults running and screaming their heads off, to the Queen eating in a rapid pace compared to her guests right up to the point when she falls asleep mid meal.

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The meeting and eventual friendship of the Queen and Abdul Karim (Fazal) seems a little rushed, compared to the straightforward negotiations between Smith and Victoria. The script appears to have its mind on other things, such as establishing the fact that Abdul is not a Hindu, but instead he is a peaceful Muslim. To the film’s credit, the scenes feel less political and more instructional.  There are no sideways jabs at Muslim phobia, it’s just plain old British panties in a bunch and the teasing of potential ribaldry.

This is also the place where the film differs from the more dramatic John Smith. It feels like Dench is the only actor that is caught up in a drama. Everyone around her seems to be in a comedy. This works, for the most part, if you’re not expecting Shakespeare. And I do mean Shakespearean comedy.

The scenery and images are sublime, and seeing Dench’s extension of her character works right up until the point where she gives her last speech, removing any of the doubt of her cognitive abilities.

It would have been more interesting if they’d left the question of her senility out there unanswered. And maybe if Abdul had some amount of depth to his character, maybe some question of his sincerity…

There’s none of that here, though. We get Fazal playing straight up and honest, to the point that his buddy and partner Mohammed (Akhtar) keeps thinking they have a chance to go home soon. This would lend itself to everyone being straight up. Having the Queen insist on calling him Munshi (teacher) removes any amount of character he might have accumulated in working an angle. Everything that happens makes him look the part of a puppet on a string. This is to the detriment of the story, but it works as comedy.

What doesn’t work as much is Izzard as the woeful Bertie. His character, as written, is even more incompetent than he was in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown. Westhead’s Bertie takes a tongue lashing from Brown, but is otherwise rather unspectacular. In the new story, Izzard, Hall and Frears never pass up an opportunity to make Bertie appear to be the most incompetent of boobs.

The rest of the cast spends most of their time looking worried, offended or both. There is one particularly effective scene when Miss Phipps shows herself to be the lone voice of reason among the staff. For her trouble, she is granted the reward of giving the Queen an ultimatum that she had no part in deciding.

This is Dench’s show though, and she doesn’t waste her opportunity. Her understanding of the character is complete, to the point where we feel we literally know the Queen of England through the latter half of her life in watching these two films. The growth she shows from the first until the last scene feels authentic and weathered. Madden and Frears allow her the freedom to look completely uncomfortable with her lot in life.

It’s unclear whose decision it was to make it look like the Queen was completely washed from the sins of the oppression of the British Empire over their subjects. It’s a thin line to walk, making her so innocent, observant and wise at once. It doesn’t serve the story, but it definitely gives us the ability to see how brilliantly she can play it.

These films are not to be missed, if you want to see a master at her best. If forced to choose, I will take Connolly, Sher and Dench over Dench by ostensibly by herself.

Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (**** out of *****)
Victoria & Abdul (*** out of *****)

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