2005 – Stephen Frears
Rated R: 103 minutes
Vault Rating: 7.5
Here’s a pleasant little morale booster from the dark days of the blitz in England.
While Nazi forces were buzz-bombing London, a certain wealthy widow had used her resources to open The Windmill Theater, which became notable for its nude musical reviews.
Director Steven Frears takes this story and weaves it expertly into a social fabric mixing proper British society, a touch of burlesque and a certain V for victory sensibility. And it works wonderfully.
Dame Judi Dench as Mrs. Henderson is so elegant that she can pull off anything, especially given such a tartly smart script and a … Oh, how can I put this? … glowing supporting cast.
Her opposite is Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), a cigar-chomping fire plug whom she hires to run her theater and with whom she meaningfully spars throughout.
Now a nude musical review is not something that just happens in World War II London. The Windmill begins as any typical professional theater and meets with success for a while. Thinning crowds, however, lead Mrs. Henderson to suggest the show would do nicely without the costumes.
“What you are suggesting isn’t possible,” protests Van Damm. “That kind of thing isn’t done here. Nudity? In England?”
Propriety is good for easy laughs in this film, and Frears tosses perfect bullseyes often enough. Christopher Guest portrays Lord Cormer, a kind of government censor, who is a perfect target for Mrs. Henderson, who’s known “Tommy” since he was a boy and who goes about plowing through his moral bluster.
“I’d prefer you refer to it,” says Lord Cormer, delicately trying to discuss nudity with Mrs. Henderson, “As the midlands.”
“Oh, dear, you men do get into such a state about ‘the midlands’, don’t you? Well you needn’t worry,” she retorts. “Our lighting will be so subtle; the disputed area will be barely visible. … And anyway, we’ll have a barber.”
Some funny parameters are thus established for such a novel performance, and the performances, to be sure, are musically peerless. There is a soundtrack running throughout that is a model of period theater and jazz.
But the real story percolating here is the personal one between the two leads, an elderly woman and a middle-aged producer. This is the part of the film that really resonates. The T&A merely provides a pleasant enough comic backdrop, and that’s as it should be. Another meaningful element is, of course, the rich canvas of blitz era England.
Layered together, these things make “Mrs. Henderson Presents” a good diversion, expertly acted and modestly presented for your enjoyment.
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