John Madden's film charts the relationship between the bereaved Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and her faithful Balmoral retainer John Brown (Billy Connolly), an association that lifted the monarch from the depths of morbid introspection, but in the process generated a murky Brown/ Windsor soup of rumour. History has forced topicality upon Jeremy Brock's script, but it is already busy finding parallels between 19th-century royalty and our own. It subscribes to the post-Morton view of monarchy as a machine engaged in freezing the humanity from those born or married into it. As Brown is warned on his arrival at Osborne House, "You don't tell Her Majesty how you feel." This is the watchword of royal etiquette, and a sentiment straight out of Diana's Panorama interview.
Provocatively, Brock raises the issue of media intrusion: "The public has a right to its interest in you," insists Victoria's Private Secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby (a lugubrious Geoffrey Palmer), as Brown rages about scurrilous remarks in Punch. Not quite so topically, we see a divided Tory government clinging desperately to power, and politicians commenting on the Queen's state of mind rather as Nicholas Soames did on Diana's.
Before her bereavement, Victoria had been something of a party animal - her busy social life included balls, concerts and sensational plays (she went three times to see Dion Boucicault's rip-roaring drama The Colleen Bawn). Her huge family also indicates that she liked more about Albert than his title (fact-fans note: he did actually have a kinkily augmented penis). When Albert died in December 1861, theatres closed down at the height of the pantomime season, crackers went unpulled. Victoria became a virtual recluse, entering a period that - rather unfairly - has made her name a byword for sexual repression and buttoned-up emotional incapacity.
A film of the Mrs Brown story was mooted over 20 years ago, with Sean Connery destined for the kilt part - but pressure from the Palace quashed the project. No such objections could be raised here: there's only the vaguest whiff of the improper in Madden's movie. It would have been easy to suggest that royal hand had wandered under hired sporran, but every tartan pleat hangs undisturbed - they might have ponies, whisky and bad temper in common, but this VR and JB are just good friends.
Madden's grip on the period is reasonably secure: instead of attempting any broad portrait of Victorian society, he focuses on a handful of figures at the top. And although Connolly's lines sometimes wander out of the 19th-century idiom, and Geoffrey Palmer's over-indulge in it, there's little that will jar with Heritage Cinema junkies. Mercifully, Madden also resists the temptation to produce a Balmoral travelogue or frock- shots for button-hook fetishists. And the film isn't, as some have claimed, another paean to Scotland - Madden makes London a chaos of uncomfortably tight location shots, but he casts the Highlands as a terrain of picturesque misery, in line with Disraeli's comment about "the land of Calvin, oatcakes and sulphur".
This is, however, a film primarily interested in actors acting. Antony Sher's Disraeli is a bizarre delight: like some peculiar clockwork weasel, he's all smiles and eyebrows that seem to be operated by levers in the pit of his stomach. Connolly plays Brown as the ghillie of people's hearts, mixing stoicism with a populist, slightly transatlantic exhortation to loosen up and chill out. Craggy and windswept as Lochnagar, Connolly rises to the challenge of a part weightier than any I've seen him in before (though admittedly my experience only goes as far as Water and The Muppets' Treasure Island).
But Judi Dench's Victoria is the jewel in Mrs Brown's crown: a creation of breathtaking sensitivity, exquisitely modulated between icy indifference, warm fragility and imperial rage. She never sentimentalises her character - even at her most unguarded, Victoria retains a capacity for defensive cruelty. The theatre has hogged her for too long.
Diana's death has inevitably impinged on the cinema week. Carl Reiner's That Old Feeling was postponed because one of its characters is a paparazzo. The premiere of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (15) was also cancelled, though the film was released on Friday - despite containing a joke about the royal divorce that won't make anyone laugh this weekend.
Written by and starring Mike Myers - in dual roles as swinging 007 Powers and supercriminal Dr Evil - the film boasts some strong cameos from a variety of stars (Christian Slater, Mimi Rogers), and there's an inspired sketch in which Dr Evil and his teenage son attend a family therapy session led by Carrie Fisher. Its instinct for Sixties cliche is difficult to fault, but skilful pastiche doesn't compensate for the tired crassness of the bulk of its gags: a sultry vixen type is named Alotta Fagina; a dumb scene in a casino toilet has to be seen to be believed. (But just take my word for it.) Nor can Myers's energetic playing distract attention from the shortcomings of Elizabeth Hurley as posh-girl uberbabe Vanessa Kensington. In her favour, until I saw Hurley do her stuff in the film's fashion-shoot parody, I used to think that being a supermodel was just a matter of collagen, low- cal Evian and being stroppy on camera. Now I realise that it is an art as complex as kabuki. Unfortunately, when it comes to walking and talking at the same time, she comes horribly unstuck: her enunciation is dreadful, her acting incoherent.
A French thriller in the Hitchcockian tradition, Gilles Mimouni's L'Appartement (15) is full of bewitching twists and turns, which makes it the best - though not the most significant - film of the week. A magnificent set of actors, led by Vincent Cassel and Romane Bohringer, grope their way around a persuasively perverse plot of lies, coincidences, and more coincidences. Mimouni uses a series of flashbacks in which different characters' points of view overlap and illuminate each other's opacities. I'll not describe the plot - go and find out for yourself. Let's just say the rhythms of the film are so hypnotic that the unreadable events of the conclusion only make it the more beguiling.
Night Falls on Manhattan (15) will come as a pleasant surprise to anyone who's given up on Sidney Lumet. It represents a clear return to form, with a plot woven from the strong themes of American personal and public justice that inform so much of his best work (Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon). Here, Andy Garcia is a young lawyer catapulted into the district attorney's office, who discovers that his success is built on the corruption of those close to him. Ian Holm plays his father, a hard-boiled New York cop, adding conscience-struck complication and proving he can say cworrffee as well as any Brooklynite. However, having wound his story so carefully, Lumet risks everything at the conclusion by having Garcia deliver a lecture - literally - on his character's journey through the plot.
The week's re-release, Leonard Kastle's 1969 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers (18), is, by contrast, studiously amoral. In fact, it may be the most coldly repulsive film ever (barring Pretty Woman of course). Shot in stark, seedy monochrome, Kastle's one-and-only movie follows a pair of serial murderers (Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco) as they travel America doing in old ladies for their cash. It has a perverse grandeur (amplified by a thunderous Mahler soundtrack), conveys a vivid sense of its protagonists' small-time butchery, and is vastly superior to Natural Born Killers.
Documentary-maker Nick Broomfield has always had an eye for thought-provoking sleaze: he's a master of a transparently prurient style that probes more deeply than your regular smut. In Fetishes (18) he spends a month with the mistresses of an upmarket New York S&M club, and leads us by the spiked dog-collar through interviews with their clientele. We begin in tame- ish territory, as he chats with a city type who likes to have clothes pegs snapped on to his scrotum. But as the film moves on, it becomes increasingly difficult to laugh off these carnal eccentricities. Broomfield argues that fetishism is a sexualisation of all our worst terrors: we meet a Jewish client who wants to act out his concentration-camp sex fantasies; a black client who pays to play Plantation Nigger, and another individual who likes to be ordered to lick toilet seats clean to - he explains - purge thoughts of genocide from his head. These are very uncomfortable concepts, and certainly you'd think twice before bringing any of these men home to meet mother. But Broomfield doesn't demonise anyone involved, and despite the piercings and thrashings, the most genuinely alarming moment comes when the cameraman is attacked by Mistress Natasha's pet iguana, Spike. Now that really must have hurt.
Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.