Mrs. Henderson Presents
Period comedy/drama proves nudity can be tasteful ... and fun for the whole family
By Devin D. O'Leary
Mrs. Henderson Presents
Directed by Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins
Like Waking Ned Devine, Calendar Girls, The Full Monty and countless other U.K. comedies, Mrs. Henderson Presents is infected with the sort of whimsy that in the Brits never seems fatal.
The story, based more or less on true events, introduces us to the titular Mrs. Henderson (the redoubtable Dame Judi Dench), a stoic British widow who finds herself lacking a raison d'etre in the wake of her good husband's death. (“I'm bored with widowhood,” she declares one day.) Eschewing such “respectable” time-wasting hobbies as needlepoint, Mrs. Henderson decides to buy a rundown theater in London's seedy SoHo district and produce a variety show.
With the Great Depression lingering and World War II looming, London is hard-pressed for entertainment, and Mrs. Henderson's frivolous follies soon prove to be just the tonic Old Blighty needs. Unfortunately, a host of singing, dancing and juggling imitators soon threatens to put Mrs. Henderson and her Windmill Theatre out of business. Conspiring with her gruff theater manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), Mrs. Henderson suggests a radical new direction: “Let's have naked girls, don't you think?”
Inspired by legendary Parisian theaters like the Moulin Rouge and the Lido, Mrs. Henderson proposes adding nude showgirls to the revue. This, of course, is a bit shocking to proper, late-'30s British sensibilities. In order to put on such an exhibition, Mrs. Henderson must get approval from the Lord Chamberlain (American comedian Christopher Guest, having fun with his toffee-nosed accent). “Will you show the ... foliage?” he inquires a bit too delicately. After a bit of dickering, the Lord Chamberlain agrees--but only if the girls in question do not move. The result is a tasteful--“artistic” as Mrs. Henderson puts it--tableaux of female flesh.
Shocking (and titillating) as this burlesque might be, it becomes the toast of London. And, when England officially gets involved in World War II, Mrs. Henderson's theater evolves into a national landmark. The Windmill Theatre's revue becomes the regulation “final stop” for British lads shipping off to fight the good fight in Europe, a last lusty look at what it is they're fighting for.
Directed with a light, practically inconsequential touch by Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, My Beautiful Launderette), Mrs. Henderson Presents flits between bawdy humor (naked gals, naked Bob Hoskins), thorny romance (could something be brewing between Mrs. Henderson and her contentious theater manager?) and patriotic drama (the film nicely eclipses Bette Midler's schmaltzy, similar For the Boys). None of it amounts to much, but it is all quite enjoyable.
Dench and Hoskins are, as always, beyond reproach. Hoskins, dressed as nattily as possible, turns his character into a likable stickler for details. (“We must have British nipples,” he insists at the inaugural audition. “Those look Italian.”) Mrs. Henderson, with her mixture of high-spirited humor and never-say-die stubbornness, is a role custom-tailored for Dench. A teary-eyed speech in which Mrs. Henderson recalls the death of her young son, a soldier in World War I, gives the film a rousing, rosy wrap-up.
The supporting players, though given considerably less to do, inhabit their roles admirably. Kelly Reilly (L'auberge Espagnole, Last Orders) makes a favorable impression as the Windmill's star poser, at least until her storyline is wrapped up in dramatic and slightly expeditious fashion.
The film takes a misstep, mostly in the fact that it features no major conflict. Guest's snobby Lord Cromer is set up as the piece's villain, but he never expresses more than a passing discomfort with our heroine's endeavor. The assorted threats--stuck-up politicians, internal conflicts, Nazi bombs--never evolve into much, resulting in a string of unrelated, easily overcome obstacles. Still, the Windmill Theatre's motto “We never close!” becomes a nose-thumbing battlecry that works just as well against bluenoses as it does against brownshirts.
Instantly likable, but rather quickly forgettable, Mrs. Henderson Presents is much like its long-gone source of inspiration. The Windmill Theatre, with its phony juggling Egyptians, its honey-throated crooners and its unclothed models, was never great theater. Mrs. Henderson Presents, despite a few Golden Globe nods and a touch of Oscar momentum, is no classic. But it's got a few laughs, some well-earned tears and a host of British nipples. How can you really complain?
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