Mrs. Henderson Presents
Mrs Henderson Presents

USA, 2005. Rated R. 103 minutes.

Cast: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Christopher Guest, Will Young, Kelly Reilly, Thelma Barlow, Anna Brewster, Rosalind Halstead, Sarah Solemani, Natalia Tena
Writer: Martin Sherman
Original Music: George Fenton
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Producers: Norma Heyman
Stephen Frears


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

E ven though Europeans always slam Americans for being puritans and prudes, apparently nudity is a huuuge deal in the UK. Based on the cinema, anyway. Writing about Bend It Like Beckham, AboutFilm's Dominic Varle rightly observed that the British film industry coughs up one or two comfortable feel-good movies every year whose success seems quite disproportionate to their modest production and ambition. Many of these movies, like The Full Monty, Calendar Girls, and now Mrs. Henderson Presents, are about the scandalous act of taking off your clothes. What's odd is that this time big shots like Oscar-winner Judi Dench and Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons) are involved.

Don't worry, Judi Dench does not take off her clothes. That task generally falls to young women, Kelly Reilly (Caroline Bingley in the current Pride & Prejudice) foremost among them, though even Bob Hoskins misplaces his pants in one scene. Does that scare you off? Don't let it; the scene is funny. The whole film, in fact, is quite funny.

Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench
Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench star in Mrs. Henderson Presents.

It's the late Thirties. Newly widowed, staggeringly rich Mrs. Henderson (Dench), right-wing and racist (but humorously so!), is bored. Her friends inform her that widows are allowed hobbies. “Once your husband dies, it's quite permissible to help the poor,” one tells her. Apparently Mrs. Henderson was never bored before becoming a widow, despite almost certainly not having a thing to do then either. Long story short, she buys an abandoned theatre in Soho, christens it The Windmill, and hires Vivian Van Damme (no relation to Jean-Claude) to run it. Their first innovation is non-stop performances throughout the day, featuring UK television's Pop Idol winner Will Young. Their second: nekkid ladies.

Of course, nekkid ladies is easier said than done. First, they need a license from the Lord Chamberlain (a deliciously stuffy Christopher Guest). Second, they need wholesome girls, with personality, good upbringing, and British nipples. Finally, they need to fight to keep the shows running while London is bombed by the Germans.

The nonstop barrage of sharp, hilarious dialogue is the film's strength. Dench's Mrs. Henderson and Hoskins' Mr. Van Damme spar as if born to do nothing else. They share such good chemistry it's difficult to believe they haven't acted together before. Mrs. Henderson would succeed quite well as an effective though trifling comedy if it didn't overreach.

Unfortunately, the film is “inspired” by historical events, and gets carried away with the inspired part. (Note that when a film is “inspired” rather than “based” on a true story, it usually means the filmmakers are passing off a complete crock as fact.) Prepare for pontificating. The theatre's perseverance during the bombings becomes an obvious representation of Britain's perseverance as a whole. Then, near the end, Mrs. Henderson gets onto an actual soapbox and makes a lengthy speech about how wrong it would be to deny joy to the young men going off to war. How's that for assigning greater meaning to a bunch of breasts? Not even The Full Monty or Calendar Girls invoked Queen and country in defense of the right to nudity of the English. Just because the film starts taking itself seriously doesn't mean you have to.

Review © December 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 The Weinstein Company. All Rights Reserved.

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