The human face of royalty

12th September 1997 at 01:00
MRS BROWN (PG), 187 (18), PLEIN SOLEIL (PG). Elstree Studios Season. Barbican Centre, September 12-25.

Last week's unexpected events have made Mrs Brown topical, argues Robin Buss

Circumstances will have transformed audience perceptions of Mrs Brown since it was premiered at the Edinburgh Festival last month: hardly ever can a historical drama have been made so topical by unexpected events. Here is a film that asks questions about the relationship of the monarchy to the people - about formality and informality, public duty and private grief, even about press intrusion - at the very moment when the death of Diana, Princess of Wales has been directing our minds to the same questions.

Where Queen Victoria is concerned, her withdrawal from public life and its repercussions on the image of the monarchy have been a matter of discussion for more than a century. Credit for her gradual return to public duties has often been given to Disraeli, whose personal charm and witty letters about goings-on in Parliament are said to have reawakened her interest in politics.

However, the cinema prefers to show her succumbing to more direct appeals from her people. The 1950 film, The Mudlark, imagined an East End urchin winning her heart and persuading her that she was needed by the country; Mrs Brown takes the real, but more ambiguous circumstance of her relationship with her Scottish servant, John Brown.

There is no doubt that, as played by Billy Connolly, Brown is a man of the people, with just the right mixture of devotion and plain speaking that the monarchy is supposed to need. "Ye must miss him terribly," he says to the Royal widow on their first meeting; and, though she reacts by storming out of the room in tears, we are given to believe that this forthright expression of sympathy with her grief has a healing effect.

In no time, she is ignoring protocol by riding around the Highlands, picnicking in the glens and sharing a dram or two with Brown's relatives in their humble bothy. We even catch a hint, in a conversation between Henry Ponsonby and the Queen's doctor, that something more may have occurred between them; but it is no more than a hint. Honi soit . . .

It is Disraeli (an eccentric cameo by Antony Sher) who finally persuades Brown that, for her own sake, the Queen must return to public life. In the bosom of a nation that loves her, she will be safer from the threat of assassination than if she stays in her Highland fastness. There is nothing republican about the stand taken by the film, even though it shows the court as impossibly hidebound by protocol and the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) as a blustering idiot.

All it wants is a monarchy with a human face, so it offers finely observed portraits by Connolly and Judi Dench as the two central characters, relegating the rest to merely supporting roles. The more interesting of the two is Brown: not only a man of the people, but The People itself; and a paradox - giving service without servility, exercising a benevolent dictatorship over his sovereign - that might have been invented by Her Majesty's loyal tabloid press.

Kevin Reynolds's 187 is a school story which starts from more or less the same premiss as Dead Poets' Society and the rest of that genre, but reaches a very different conclusion; perhaps this has to do with the fact that the central character here teaches science, which apparently has a less magical effect on students than poetry.

At the start, however, the film lulls you into a sense of well-being, with a marvellous (even "poetic") sequence behind the credit titles as Samuel L Jackson cycles to work across Brooklyn Bridge; and, indeed, the camerawork in the film is often striking, whether it invites us to enjoy a still life of trainers hanging on washing lines or circles dizzyingly round and round a couple in conversation. Much of this seems to have little to do with what is happening on the screen: it is hard to see why a brutal murder should be shown taking place in a scene bathed in gold from the setting sun. But, like Mrs Brown, this is a film that raises plenty of points for discussion.

The study of cinema requires not only access to videos of films from the past, but also the chance to see them at full size, re-released in new prints. Luckily, distributors are still prepared to take the risk involved in re-releases of old movies. The British Film Institute has just given us Rene Clement's film Plein Soleil (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's psychological thriller, The Talented Mr Ripley.

This was a crucial film in the career of Alain Delon and a much better one than some of the film guides would have you believe: writers of film guides, too, need the chance to make re-assessments.

Meanwhile, at the Barbican Cinema in London this month, there is a season of films made at Elstree Studios, including a rarity from 1959, Val Guest's Hell Is a City - despite Shelley ("Hell is a city Much like London") this is set in Manchester; and it turns out to be a key work in any study of British police movies. Stanley Baker plays a detective chasing an escaped criminal, trying to deal with troubles in his marriage and tempted to have an affair with the wanted man's former mistress.

Where earlier films had shown the CID as middle-class professionals, different in every way from the prole criminals, this points forward to crime stories where only a narrow line divides the two sides and the police often lead troubled personal lives. A year after Hell Is a City was originally released, the first episode of Z Cars was shown on television.

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