Dame Judi Dench earned her fifth Oscar nomination for the titular role in Stephen Frears’ Mrs. Henderson Presents , a mildly diverting musical/comedy set in World War II London. She plays a feisty widow who purchases a rundown West End theater and enlists the aid of a crusty but talented director, played with relish by Bob Hoskins, to stage vaudeville-style musical revues. When box office receipts start to dwindle, they decide to lose the clothing and soon their all-nude show becomes a wartime sensation.
Modest ambitions typically yield modest results, and such is the case with the pleasantly amusing but slight Mrs. Henderson Presents . In the tradition of The Full Monty and Calendar Girls , we’re treated to the comic sight of uptight Brits doffing their undies, although thankfully this usually involves lovely and obviously talented young ladies. The notable exception in this case is a brief, nightmare-inducing full-frontal appearance by Hoskins (who also executive-produced), which elicits one of Dench’s funniest lines. These two esteemed actors carry the film, which is based on actual events, and ultimately rescue it from mediocrity with their fiercely competitive but essentially playful interaction as the director and producer of a wildly popular 1930s London nudie revue.
Frears gives a nod to the theatrical and helps infuse the film with a whimsical tone by opening with a fun animated title sequence accompanied by a catchy musical overture. We’re then introduced to the incomparable Mrs. Henderson, who, only moments after burying her beloved husband, declares to her best friend, the Lady Conway, that she’s already “bored with widowhood.” Her failed attempts at developing a hobby and taking part in charity work produce hilarious results, so she soon finds herself the proud owner of the now-defunct Windmill Theatre. She quickly hires Hoskins’ Vivian Van Damm, a gruff theatre director of Dutch Jewish heritage, which the politically incorrect Mrs. Henderson is quick to point out. In true cinematic fashion, the two clash almost immediately, but soon develop a grudging respect for one another.
Although initially a success, the fledgling production’s prospects begin to dim as competitors adopt the Windmill’s original idea of staging multiple shows throughout the day rather than just one or two. Without batting an eye, the enterprising Mrs. Henderson suggests that they up the ante by “getting rid of the clothes” like they do in Paris. She seeks the approval of the Lord Chamberlain, played by the immensely talented Christopher Guest (of Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman fame), who holds sway in all matters of public decency. After negotiating a compromise that requires the nude girls to remain still as artful tableaus in the background, Mrs. Henderson launches her new show which soon becomes a huge hit.
The film makes a huge and somewhat awkward shift in tone during its second half as the specter of war takes center stage. The Nazi invasion of France brings back haunting memories for the wealthy widow, who lost her young son in WWI, and the bombing of London in 1940 threatens the closing of the Windmill, which has become a haven for the boys in uniform as well as the city’s beleaguered denizens with its basement location. Without divulging too much, this turn of events has tragic implications for the cast and crew, but they strive on and turn their little production into a symbol of hope during London’s darkest hour.
There’s much to like about Mrs. Henderson Presents , from its bouncy musical numbers to its sharp script by Martin Sherman that gives Dench’s memorable character numerous opportunities to display her rapier wit. The performances are, for the most part, outstanding, although it seems that Dench could play this kind of part in her sleep. I truly thought Laura Linney was far more deserving for her stellar work in The Squid and the Whale , but to Dame Judi’s credit she imbues Mrs. Henderson with a slightly off-center, even goofy vulnerability that represents a bit of a departure from previous roles. She and Hoskins share an undeniable chemistry in their many scenes together.
Hoskins is given a few moments to shine as well, most notably when the frustrated Van Damm uses his considerable powers of persuasion and penchant for speechmaking to convince the reluctant starlets that disrobing is their chance to take a moral stand against the forces of oppression. And who else could utter a line like “We must have British nipples!” with such bravado and conviction? Christopher Guest, although woefully underutilized, does an admirable job as a stuffy British aristocrat, and his flummoxed reaction upon seeing the girls naked in their dressing room is priceless. Thelma Barlow as the wacky, outspoken Lady Conway, “Pop Idol” Will Young in his screen debut as Van Damm’s right-hand man and singer Bertie, and the luminous Kelly Reilly as the willful Maureen all register as appealing and memorable characters.
The film stumbles slightly, however, in its shift from lighthearted comedy to somber melodrama during its latter half. Although some scenes work, like the nude Maureen’s defiant “V for victory” salute after the underground theatre is shaken by the bombing of the Luftwaffe or Van Damm’s tearful realization that Hitler is rounding up Jews, including members of his own family in Holland, others fall flat. A cast member’s romance with a young soldier and its inevitable consequences has a tacked-on, contrived feeling, and an impassioned speech near the conclusion defending the nude revue as a beacon of hope during times of trouble seems a bit of a stretch.
A few missteps along the way aren’t enough to derail this enjoyable little number, and I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise. Take the always welcome presence of heavyweight British thesps Dench and Hoskins, add a few musical montages involving fetching young lovelies in their birthday suits to satisfy prurient interests, mix in a little wartime intrigue to give the proceedings a sense of gravitas, and you’ve got Mrs. Henderson Presents . Not a bad way to spend a couple hours. Just don’t expect it to resonate with you much longer than that.
The extra features on the widescreen edition of Mrs. Henderson Presents are meager and largely forgettable. They include a collection of twenty or thirty production stills that could easily have been taken by a Teamster with a disposable camera. Nothing much to see there. There’s also a documentary featurette consisting of five different subjects related to the film’s production.
“The Real Windmill Girls” introduces us to some of the original dancers, now in their seventies and eighties, who attended a cocktail party after the film’s premiere. They reminisce about the old days and everyone takes great pains to comment on how beautiful and energetic they still appear. This goes on for several minutes without anything remotely interesting being discussed. “Casting the Show” is an opportunity for Stephen Frears and producer Norma Heyman to rave about the talents of Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins until they’re blue in the face. Will Young does tell an amusing story about auditioning and then interacting with Frears for almost two weeks before realizing that he was the director.
The section called “Production Design” focuses almost entirely on the wardrobe artists, paying scant attention to the theatre’s design or the digital artists who helped create the backdrop of a war-torn London landscape. Considerable time is spent, however, on “Choreography,” including seemingly endless footage of the various routines and how they came to life. Finally, “Making the Movie” very briefly covers the shooting schedule and allows cast and crew more opportunities for self-congratulation. Unfortunately, these features offer few juicy details and little insight into how this film was made.
Thankfully, Stephen Frears’ commentary accompanying the film is refreshingly modest and self-effacing. It’s also a relief to have only one voice on the commentary. It can be downright annoying to have two or three creators and/or stars all talking over one another in an attempt to further illuminate their inherent genius. Frears is soft-spoken and prone to incoherent mumbling, but when you do catch what he’s saying, it’s usually pretty insightful. With his droll British wit, he admits to knowing absolutely nothing about computer effects and always seems surprised and pleased when he witnesses a CGI-enhanced scene. He attributes a clever line Dench uses at one point to fellow Dame Maggie Smith as well as giving Sir John Gielgud credit for hilariously referring to a woman’s privates as “the midlands”.
At one point, during a speech given by Dench in which she stumbles and is given help by her friend Lady Conway, Frears admits that she flubbed her lines (at one point looking directly into the camera) and was given a prompt by a fellow actor, but he liked it so much that he left it in the film because it showed her vulnerability. He mentions the perils of filming long outdoor scenes in period pieces because a plane will invariably fly by and says that, when in doubt, add rain to a scene because for some reason it helps to ratchet up the drama. Although not usually a fan of director’s commentaries, I have to say I laughed aloud on several occasions as Frears poked fun at his own shortcomings and even acknowledged a few mistakes that he’d like to go back and change. As for the rest of the extras on this disc, one can only assume that a special edition is being prepared to make up for this lackluster first offering.