"I'M NOT A monarchist at all," says British film director John Madden, "but it is a hopelessly unenviable life." Madden's Mrs. Brown follows the strange and illicit relationship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her Scot servant John Brown (Billy Connolly) after the death of her husband in 1864, at a time when she soundly retreated from all forms of queenly responsibilities.
During a recent visit to Minneapolis, Madden explained that making this movie did not come without a certain insight into the arcane bureaucracy of contemporary royal life. Given that Madden's subject is commonly regarded as a scurrilous episode in British history, his attempt to use royal residences as locations was viewed as a political foray. After Madden had apprised the Royal press office of his seemingly unprovocative intentions, he received a "bizarre missive" amounting to this: The Palace does not have a locus on this issue.
"This is famously what the Queen is constitutionally," Madden says, alluding to the state of entrapment in which the Royal family still lives. "She can only warn, advise, or be consulted by her government."
Still, Madden is careful not to become mired in political bureaucracy. In Mrs. Brown, he plumbs the emotions of two people who are expected to regard one another not as human beings but as occupations. "I wanted to get inside the characters," says Madden, who filmed Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome in 1993. "The trap was that it would become another costume drama viewed through a gilt frame, where the characters seem terribly distant and remote."
Indeed, the short 30-day shooting schedule posed a challenge to telling a story of desire that could hardly be spoken aloud in its own time. So, rather than offering a full portrait of royal life in all its grandeur, Mrs. Brown zooms in on the smallest details of the characters' behavior. And by focusing on those moments when the edges of pomposity and decorum begin to fray, Madden's approach is both studious and tightly controlled.
"It's a love story between two people who didn't understand they were in love, and who were without a framework to articulate it," says Madden. To put it another way, Mrs. Brown is a film in which silence speaks loudly.