The film shows the story of a recently widowed Queen Victoria and her relationship with a Scottish servant, John Brown, a trusted servant of her deceased husband, and the subsequent uproar it provoked. Brown had served Victoria’s Prince Consort, Prince Albert; Victoria’s Household thought Brown might help the Queen who had remained in mourning since the Prince Consort’s death in 1861.
In 1863, hoping to subtly coax the Queen toward resuming public life after years of seclusion, Brown is summoned to court. The plan succeeds a little too well for the liking of Victoria’s chief secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby and The Prince of Wales as well as other members of the Royal family; the public, press and politicians soon come to resent Brown’s perceived influence over Victoria. Brown takes considerable liberties with court protocol, especially by addressing Her Majesty as “woman”. He also quickly takes control over the Queen’s daily activities, further aggravating the tensions between himself and the royal family and servants.
The moniker “Mrs Brown”, used both at the time and in the film, implied an improper, and perhaps sexual, relationship. The film does not directly address the contemporary suspicions that Victoria and Brown had had a sexual relationship and perhaps had even secretly married, though cartoons from the satirical magazine Punch are shown as being passed around in Parliament (one cartoon is revealed to the camera, showing an empty throne, with the sceptre lying unhanded across it).
As a result of Victoria’s seclusion, especially at Balmoral Castle in Scotland (something initially encouraged by Brown), her popularity begins failing and republican sentiment begins growing. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli has a weakening hold over the House of Commons and a fear of rising anti-monarchical sentiment in the country. He convinces Brown to use his influence with Victoria to persuade her to return to the performance of her public duties, especially the speech from the throne at the impending opening of Parliament.
Brown is reluctant to do so, rightly fearing that Victoria will take this as a personal betrayal. When Brown urges Victoria to return to London and fulfill her public duties, an argument ensues. Feeling betrayed by Brown, Victoria becomes visibly agitated. When Brown once again refers to her as “woman”, she sharply rebukes him. Leaving the room, she turns to Ponsonby and Jenner requesting that they serve her needs, visibly demoting Brown’s contact and influence over her. Their relationship was never to be the same again. Victoria’s eventual acquiescence and her decision to return to public life leads to a revitalization of her popularity and a resurgence in public support of the monarchy.
Brown continues to serve Victoria until his death in 1883. In his final years, his duties become reduced to head of security. The palace staff has become weary of Brown’s dogmatic ways and they mock and rebuke his security efforts as paranoid delusions. Finally, during a public event, a gun-wielding assassin appears out of the crowd leaping toward the royal family. An ever-vigilant Brown successfully thwarts the assassination attempt. At dinner the next evening, the Prince of Wales retells the story, bragging to their dinner companions that he had been the one to warn Brown of the assassin. Seeing through her son’s bragging, Victoria announces instead that a special medal for bravery, the “Devoted Service Medal,” will be minted and awarded to Brown.
Some years later, Brown becomes gravely ill with pneumonia after chasing through the woods late at night searching for a possible intruder. Hearing of Brown’s illness, Victoria visits his room and is shaken to see her old friend so ill. She confesses that she has not been as good a friend as she might have been in recent years, and the pneumonia proves fatal for Brown. During his years of service, Brown had kept a diary and, upon his passing, Ponsonby and Jenner discuss its contents stating that it must never be seen by anyone. The film’s closing crawl notes that “John Brown’s diary was never found.” Jenner also reveals that the Prince of Wales hurled the Queen’s favourite bust of Brown over the palace wall, referencing the film’s opening sequence.