A mudlark is a child who scrounges on the muddy banks of the River Thames, looking for anything of value to sell. Even if it means taking something from a dead body. In that respect, it reminds me of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, where characters make their living on the river by robbing the drowned bodies they find.
The Mudlark is a historical drama about Wheeler (Andrew Ray), a mudlark who finds a cameo with the image of Queen Victoria. Without parents, he is completely ignorant of everything beyond the immediate banks of the river and has no idea who she is. He is told, however, that she is Victoria, the “mother of England.” Wheeler says she looks like how he imagines a mother would look and wants to see her. But Victoria has lived in seclusion ever since her husband, Albert, died and the only way for Wheeler to see her is to sneak into Windsor Castle.
The film is partly about his quest to see Victoria, but also about Prime Minister Disraeli’s (Alec Guinness) attempts to get Queen Victoria (Irene Dunne) out of her self-imposed solitude and reengaged with her kingdom. He does this through every means at his disposal: coaxing, reasoning and flat-out political machinations at the Houses of Parliament.
Disraeli also sees Wheeler as a prime example of the kind of ignorance produced by extreme poverty and exactly the kind of child targeted by new legislation he is trying to push through parliament. The chances of the reforms being passed are low, but he knows Victoria supports the reforms and wants her to use her authority to help push it through. So, part of the film is a cat and mouse game between Disraeli and Victoria.
Alec Guinness and Irene Dunne are quite wonderful, especially Alec Guinness. Irene Dunne is almost unrecognizable as Victoria and does a remarkable job of becoming the role. She looks just like her. What gives her away is the intelligence in her eyes that is never absent from Irene Dunne, and a certain way of speaking that comes through periodically.
Alec Guinness is excellent at transforming himself into different roles. I’ve been watching a number of his films recently and he is a marvel. He too has intelligence shining from his eyes as he gallantly serves his queen, but serves shrewdly.
Victoria and Disraeli did have a very great affection for each other in reality. She loathed dealing with Gladstone when he was prime minister, but Disraeli knew how to talk with her and flatter her and they seemed to have been genuinely fond of each other. He was gallant to the extreme and would talk about Albert with her. He was also a novelist and I am pretty sure I read one of his books once – I think it was Venetia – but I seem to recall it being a melodramatic romance.
Finlay Currie also does well as the Scotsman, John Brown, who occupied a rather unusual position in Victoria’s household. He was privileged to say and do nearly anything in her presence and tended to irritate others with his uncouth and often tipsy manners, not to mention his privileged position (if you are interested in their relationship, the film to see is Mrs. Brown).
There are also other goings on in the palace, like a young lady-in-waiting who keeps trying to elope with her Lieutenant, who is delayed for various reasons.
Another thing that was interesting was the complete ignorance of the mudlark. Wheeler literally knows nothing. Nothing about God or Queen or Country. He doesn’t even know what England is. Such ignorance, however, was not unusual. In The Friendly Dickens (an introduction to all things Dickens: biography, his books), the author, Norrie Epstein, writes about the character Jo in Bleak House. Jo is a crossing sweep and also lives in a state of complete, isolating ignorance. Epstein writes that this was not an unusual case at all during he Victorian era. The situation appalled Dickens. The Mudlark is not dealing in outrage, though, but still notes the situation, particularly in a witty and pointed speech given by Disraeli to the House of Commons.
The film is occasionally stately in pace, but I found a lot to enjoy and it doesn’t take itself that seriously. It manages to encompass a wide swathe of people: queen, politicians, solders, servants both high and low, and a small mudlark from the river.