When opposition newspapers started referring to Queen Victoria as “Mrs. Brown,” most of them weren’t actually suggesting that the widowed queen had secretly married John Brown, a hunting servant at Balmoral, the royal family’s Scottish estate. Neither does Mrs. Brown, which describes a close friendship that would hardly be shocking today. But Victoria was, of course, Victorian, and the notion that she might develop an intimacy, sexual or not, with a rough-mannered Scottish commoner was scandalous.

A Masterpiece Theatre co-production, John Madden’s film is anything but scandalous. Essentially a two-person show, it charts the relationship of the queen (Judi Dench, a stage actress who usually resists taking film assignments) and her servant (Scottish comedian Billy Connolly). The film opens in 1864, in the middle of Victoria’s record-holding 64-year reign. Victoria has retreated from public life in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert. Three years after Albert’s death, she remains in seclusion, as her popularity fades and radicals in Parliament introduce legislation to disestablish the monarchy.

Royal adviser Sir Henry Ponsonby (Geoffrey Palmer) summons John Brown, who had served Prince Albert as a horse-keeper and hunting guide. At first, the blunt, overbearing Brown offends Victoria, but she soon begins to participate in his rehabilitation program. He takes her riding and even swimming (she in a head-to-toe black swimming costume), and they gradually become friends. She starts calling him “John,” while he—to the consternation of the household—calls her “woman.” Eventually, the same people who were delighted to see Brown arrive can’t wait to see him go.

British TV writer Jeremy Brock’s script captures the courtiers’ plight in a series of keen miniatures. Victoria’s advisers find it difficult to undermine Brown without questioning the queen’s judgment, a conundrum illustrated deftly by a sequence in which Victoria seems to be tipsy. “She was drunk,” grieves the first courtier. “No, she wasn’t,” responds the second. “Surely not,” agrees the first. With these three censorious, hypocritical sentences, Brock nails the enduring meaning of “Victorian.”

Although Brown exults at his influence with Victoria to his brother Archie (Gerard Butler), another royal servant, he seems to want nothing more than to revitalize and protect the queen. (In the latter role, he shows signs of paranoia.) Although he’s brusque with Victoria’s son, Prince Bertie (David Westhead), he accepts the insistence of Prime Minister Disraeli (Anthony Sher) that the queen should return to public life. Brown pushes Victoria to come out of mourning, risking her wrath and the decline of his own influence. Once Victoria is re-established in London, Brown’s role is diminished, although he remains in her entourage until he dies in 1883. (Just before her own death 18 years later, Victoria asked to be laid out with a picture of Brown in her hand; the request was honored, but the picture was covered with flowers to avoid reigniting controversy over the relationship.)

As with most Masterpiece Theatre productions, Mrs. Brown’s virtues are those of the stage: acting and sets. In this case, the sets include the entirely cinematic Scottish highlands, although director Madden (who made the dour Ethan Frome and the wackily grandiose Golden Gate) apparently didn’t notice just how the epic locations were used to amplify the impact of Braveheart and Rob Roy. The acting, however, could not be better. Dench brings all the authority of the English classical stage to Victoria, which is both actually and metaphorically a perfect fit. Connolly enlists both the fervor and the wit of his stand-up act in his impersonation of Brown, which is as authoritative as Dench’s performance; unlike so many American comedians who take movie roles, he’s really acting.

Brock’s screenplay is scrupulously historical, which is both admirable and a bit of a problem. Like many other responsible grown-ups, apparently, Victoria and Brown had a flirtation that didn’t lead to anything. The relationship may have been political dynamite at the time, but in retrospect it’s barely a cherry bomb. Skillfully and sensitively rendered, Mrs. Brown is nonetheless a footnote.

Directors of ’90s Hollywood blockbusters shamelessly jumble drama, action, comedy, and romance in the hopes of reaching the widest possible audience. But then, that’s just what French innovator Abel Gance did in the ’20s, constructing such vivid spectacles as Napoleon and La Roue. There’s little Gance doesn’t attempt in the latter, an epic 1922 melodrama that veers from horror to slapstick to high-culture allusion.

Before the 1981 reconstruction of Napoleon, Gance rarely got his due, simply because few of his early (and best) films could be seen. Like most of the director’s pre-World War II films, La Roue (“The Wheel”) has long been in a state of profound disrepair; originally eight hours long, it was cut first to five hours and ultimately to little more than two. This is only the second U.S. screening of the four-and-a-half-hour restoration recently completed by the Cinémathèque Française.

When Gance began directing in 1915, the French cinema was already in the throes of its longstanding crisis: being overpowered by Hollywood’s more expensive, more sensational efforts. Gance, however, was prepared to meet D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille on their own territory. Having traveled to London to see Birth of a Nation years before French censors allowed it to be screened in France, Gance was conversant with quick cuts, subjective camera, and violent montage. He demonstrates that expertise with La Roue’s opening sequence, a startling train wreck that terrified some early viewers. The scene demonstrates the heroism of railroad engineer Sisif (Séverin-Mars), who prevents another train from colliding with the wrecked one, and introduces the character who will destroy him: Norma, a little girl the engineer takes home after she’s orphaned in the crash.

The widowed Sisif never tells anyone, not even his own son, Elie (Gabriel de Gravone), that the girl is not his biological daughter. When she grows up, however, Norma (Ivy Close) becomes the light of both their lives. A wistful violin maker who hates the bustle of the neighboring rail yard, Elie imagines living in Renaissance times with Norma as his wife, although it never occurs to him to act on his feelings. Sisif, however, is driven nearly insane by his lust for the daughter only he knows is adopted. Eventually, he forces her into the arms of Hersan, a rich man she doesn’t love. Then he intentionally wrecks the steam engine he also named Norma, and is demoted to running a small funicular train in the French Alps. He and Elie move to a tiny cabin on Mont Blanc and attempt to put Norma from their minds. While on vacation, however, she accidentally discovers them, leading to a fateful confrontation.

With its melodramatic contrivances, La Roue is plainly rooted in the popular fiction and theater of 19th-century France, as is the bulging-eyed performance of Séverin-Mars, who died days after the film was completed. Yet much of Gance’s technique looks fresh even today: When a man anticipating his death watches images from his past speed by, the edits are at MTV velocity. Gance also insisted on authenticity, shooting on location both the many hurtling steam-train sequences and the vertiginous mountain scenes (which predate the fiction work of German mountain film pioneers Arnold Fanck and Luis Trenker)—as he had shot the battle scenes of his J’Accuse! while in uniform during actual World War I conflict. The director’s bold montage would soon influence such Russian directors as Eisenstein, and his subjective viewpoint is equally daring: The camera reproduces Sisif’s vision when the engineer is drunk, deranged, and finally losing his eyesight altogether.

Gance was deft at visual storytelling, so La Roue features relatively few titles containing dialogue. But it does contain many quotations from the work of Rudyard Kipling, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and other authors, which complement the oft-repeated references to “the wheel of life” and allusions to Sisyphus (in the name Sisif) and Oedipus (in Sisif’s eventual blindness). “If Mr. Abel Gance would only give up making locomotives say yes or no, lending the railroad engineer the thoughts of a hero of antiquity, and quoting his favorite authors,” lamented his generally complimentary contemporary Rene Clair, a less classically minded director.

That judgment itself now seems a little dated. Sure, Gance’s literary invocations are fusty, but today’s filmmakers still make similar obeisances to classy lit. Moreover, La Roue’s integration of word and image sometimes seems avant-garde. When the director superimposes the name “Norma” over the interior of Sisif’s erotically haunted house, the device evokes Godard or Greenaway more than Sophocles or Kipling. Gance made only a few noteworthy films in his long career, but his additions to cinematic vocabulary are still being cataloged.CP

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