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Memphis Flyer Some Measure of Comfort

By Hadley Hury and Susan Ellis

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  You don't have to be a 19th-century groupie to fall for Mrs. Brown. In an age of overblown cinema -- obscenely expensive, full of sound and fury and signifying not very much -- this British import is an endearing example of what film buffs refer to as a great "small picture." Instead of "high concept" and a "through-line," it dares to tell a simple but memorable story; instead of in-your-face hardware, special-effects, animatronics, and computer-enhancements, it looks quietly into two human hearts; and instead of characters who have been endlessly re-written (contorted, pruned, or inflated) to fit celebrity stars' images and multimillion-dollar contract requirements, it gives us two very talented but self-effacing actors creating historical characters who have been fleshed out with accuracy and discretion.

The film opens in 1864 with Queen Victoria three years into her formal mourning for her beloved consort, Prince Albert. Her mourning is not only formal (the queen makes no public appearances, all members of the large royal family and the court wear black), it has virtually paralyzed the monarch and all those around her, and -- to the growing concern of her advisors and the savvy Prime Minister Disraeli (Anthony Sher) -- is beginning to paralyze the monarchy's role in government itself. The queen's grief is impenetrable, and her near-catatonia shows no signs of abating; until John Brown (Billy Connolly), a feisty Scot and former attendant to the prince at the royal residence at Balmoral, is called. A delicate, yet very strong, friendship between the dour queen and the spirited outdoorsman is born; and despite court jealousies and tabloid-driven, politically nurtured gossip (Victoria was jeeringly referred to as Mrs. Brown), it continues until his death some 20 years later.

Needless to say, this modest but profoundly moving portrayal of the rare symbiosis between a very human, natural man, and a woman defined first by grief and ultimately by the extraordinarily rarefied expectations of her public duties, has an uncanny resonance in light of recent events.

The most brilliant facet of this little bijou is the wonderful Judi Dench's performance. Much better known in her native Britain -- critically acclaimed for her stage work in the West End, more popularly known for television roles -- Dame Judi has been seen by American audiences infrequently but to memorable effect. (She played Miss Lash, the lusty romantic novelist who raised the eyebrows of Maggie Smith's prim chaperone in A Room With A View, and played a chilly, social-climbing interior decorator in the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust.) By her peers and much of her public, Dench is considered, along with Dame Maggie, as one of the greatest actors of English-speaking theatre and film. In Mrs. Brown, her portrayal of Victoria has a dazzling subtlety -- by turns, a black hole of inconsolability, the most powerful monarch in the world who also happens to be a fragile human being in desperate need of a friend, and a woman torn between healing herself and preserving a historical tradition of government.

Connolly is fine as the cocky Highlander who cuts right through the falderol and protocol to revive the spirit of a woman he honors, respects, and admires. The movie doesn't glamorize Brown or imply that he was without weaknesses, but it gets exactly right the profoundly moving, always unexpected, miracle of two souls who help one another feel a bit more at home on the planet. With his stringy ponytail, rough hands, and colloquial Scottish burr, Brown is, most certainly, no royal. But he is, just as certainly, a prince.

There is something quite admirable in director John Madden's refusal to have this project overstep its parameters -- that is the ideal function of the "small" film. Without pretension or browbeating, Mrs. Brown is thoughtful and thought-provoking; and without resorting either to historical presumption or to cheap melodrama, it gives us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary human beings coping with extraordinary circumstances. -- Hadley Hury

The Full Monty is about as substantial as a red satin G-string, the key garment of the film. And, yet, this threadbare charm is exactly what it's got going for it.

The Full Monty is all about the gimmick, nothing more, nothing less. The gimmick in this case is that six very unlikely Englishmen are going to strip. What makes them unusual exotic dancers is that they are each in some way too old, too fat, too clumsy, too shy, or too dignified. All they have, really, is sheer will or, at least, their willingness to go "the full Monty," their chosen slang for completely nude.

The striptease is the harebrained scheme hatched by Gaz (Robert Carlyle), an out-of-work steelworker, who happily breezes the days away with his chubby pal Dave (Mark Addy), either smoking and playing cards down at the employment office, kicking a soccer ball around, or engaging in petty thievery. Unfortunately, none of these pull in any real income, so when his ex-wife tells him he can't see their son until he pays his share, he's forced to act. Gaz comes to the idea of stripping when he passes a club filled to capacity with women screaming over the Chippendales dancers, and he thinks, Why not?

So Gaz sets about gathering his crew. Of course, there's Dave, and he quickly picks up Lomper (Steve Huison), mainly because he and Dave have saved him from suicide, plus he's got a place to practice. They are joined by Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), their stuffy former foreman who knows ballroom dancing, and the simpleminded Guy (Hugo Speer), who's chosen for a certain rather large physical attribute and in spite of his lack of dancing skill. Finally, there's Horse (Paul Barber), a man well past his prime but who still knows how to do the bump, the mashed potato, and other dances.

The Full Monty is a genial, easygoing film. Instead of overwhelming with too much slapstick, director Peter Cattaneo and writer Simon Beaufoy take their time establishing each of the characters, introducing the thing that eats at their egos so that the audience can feel some attachment. The men seem to keep circling in place, as they meet various crises that threaten to shut down the one-night-only gig -- the fear of embarrassment and an arrest for indecent exposure, among them. And just as you're convinced that The Full Monty really will go nowhere, suddenly there you are, and there are the men wearing nothing but their smiles. -- Susan Ellis

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