Ulee's Gold & Mrs. Brown

Ulee's Gold & Mrs. Brown

How nonviolent and unlurid can a melodrama be and yet remain a melodrama? Ulee’s Gold, written and directed by Victor Nunez, provides a test case. Its plot has a kinship to the storylines of other melodramas about solid citizens trying to protect their homes from human predators-Cape Fear, Straw Dogs, The Desperate Hours. A Florida beekeeper, Ulysses “Ulee” Jackson, has freeze-dried his emotions after the death of his wife and the imprisonment of his son for armed robbery. Only his pride in his apiary and his love for his two granddaughters link him to life. When a couple of criminal associates of his son, believing (correctly) that the younger Jackson had stashed away some loot before his arrest, close in on Ulee and his girls to pressure the beekeeper into locating the money for them, Ulee, a veteran once traumatized by the slaughter of his platoon in Vietnam, now faces violence again. But this time, fighting for loved ones and winning the friendship of a humane and attractive neighbor, he renews his appetite for life and helps to reunite his family.

The cinematic flesh on these bare bones of melodramatic narrative is anything but melodramatic. Far from pumping sinister atmosphere into the Florida setting, cinematographer Virgil Milano’s camera seems entranced, even somewhat dazed by the sunlight and heat it renders. The details of beekeeping and honey extraction are peripheral to the storyline (Ulee doesn’t unleash a swarm to sting the villains to death), but they nicely convey the feel of a life supported and justified by sweat and ache. And none of the characterizations is sensationalized. Ulee, roused to action, is intrepid enough, but like Gary Cooper in High Noon, he is an aging man whose body hobbles him in the fight against young punks. The crooks aren’t demonic masterminds but only stupid thugs way in over their heads, yet this movie forcefully reminds us that the evil of stupid thugs can wreak more than enough havoc. The neighborly love interest, though handsome, is frankly fortyish, unapologetic about her two divorces, and endowed with enough sense to call the police when her man drives off to face danger alone.

Victor Nunez’s very real directorial gift is not for violence or suspense but for giving us unexpected glimpses of people teetering on the verge of emotion. For instance, the neighbor, a nurse, makes her first major entrance into the story when she is hustled by the granddaughters into Ulee’s house to help their drug-wrecked mother. We see all this from a distance, through a window. Dragging her feet but with real concern on her face for the kids, the nurse is a study in reluctant decency, and the camera’s distance from her face is an inextricable part of the scene’s diffident pathos.

Is Ulee’s Gold, then, not a melodrama at all but a Chekhovian character study? No, for the story finally depends on action and sheer fortuitousness rather than character or the working out of a theme. A knife-thrust must be misaimed and a shrewd cop must be in the right place at the right time for everything to come out O.K. The various loose ends are tied together (or at least bunched up in a ball of circumstantial yarn) with the same improbability you find in more sensational films. Yet Ulee’s Gold is a rarity: a lulling melodrama, an uninflated crime story. In the overheated summer of Con Air and Face/Off, it’s as refreshing as a glass of Florida orange juice.

And having been refreshed, the critics proceeded to heat themselves up by overpraising the movie, rightly extolling Nunez’s lithe direction but overlooking his often pedestrian and predictable writing. Overpraised, too, was Peter Fonda’s performance, which is always believable but never quite vivid enough in the lead role. I found two performances in the supporting cast more arresting. Tim Wood, as Ulee’s son, is like a seemingly sturdy bell that cracks upon its first toll. As the neighbor, Patricia Richardson, a middle-aged beauty with a strong, stubborn jaw, fills her rather sketchy role with sheer humanity. When, with a piquant mixture of kindness and mockery in her eyes, she tells Ulee that he’s “almost a good man, but you try too hard,” you know she’s going to be a bigger challenge to our hero than a whole snakepit of crooks.

Another movie about thawed humanity is Mrs. Brown, directed by John Madden. The title is the scandal-mongering nickname given to Queen Victoria when, after the death of Prince Albert, her spirit was revived by the Scottish servant, John Brown. Their (probably) platonic relationship raised the “gillie” (body servant) to de facto mastery of the queen’s country retreat in the Highlands, Balmoral, but was ultimately of greater benefit, first to Victoria by restoring her sanity and popularity, and then to Prime Minister Disraeli, who could use the monarch as an ally against Gladstonian liberalism.

This film is sufficiently handsome (is Scotland the most photogenic country in Europe or is Italy?), sufficiently humorous, and sufficiently well-paced. But how compelling is sufficiency? The destination of each scene becomes clear before it is twenty-seconds old. That in itself is not a fault. Victorian novelists often announced the purpose of each chapter with headings like “In which the hero discovers that his betrothed has not been entirely candid,” but the drama of the chapter lies in the psychological subtleties that emerge on the way to that destination. Not so with the writing of Mrs. Brown. The poignancy of the dialogue for the Brown-Victoria scenes is of a prechewed emotionality, just as the lines written for Disraeli have the gloss of wit without any of the pith.

I often had the impression that I was watching the final installment of a long PBS TV saga. (Indeed, Mrs. Brown is a “Masterpiece Theater” project but strictly a one-shot venture.) Brown’s emotional ascendancy over the queen seemed achieved much too quickly, considering that she barely seems to know him at the movie’s beginning. From Simon Schama’s New Yorker (August 11) article about these events I learn that Victoria actually had an attachment to Brown before Albert’s death. Couldn’t this background have been worked into the film with or without flashbacks? And what was Brown’s background? How did this gillie have the nerve to take over the Balmoral household without official permission from the queen? If history books don’t hold the answers, why didn’t the filmmakers invent some, especially since parts of this movie are pure speculation anyway? (The beating of Brown by some bravos, as well as the circumstance in which the gillie contracts his mortal illness.)

The only munificent thing in this movie is the acting. As Victoria, Judi Dench is the most noble dumpling of them all. Billy Connolly, reputedly a comic star in England, makes Brown a figure of controlled, channeled wildness. Antony Sher doesn’t just wear the devilish goatee of Disraeli; he really makes that brilliant dandy a benevolent Mephisto.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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