Mrs. Henderson (Judi Dench), a wealthy woman living in London circa 1937, doesn’t roll over and die when her husband passes away. While she is saddened by the loss of her long time love, she isn’t about to bury herself with him. “I’m bored with widowhood!” she announces to her friend Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow). Instead of taking up embroidery or making a daily routine out of sipping tea and eating crumpets at noon, a different plan of action is taken: she buys a theater and features female performers wearing nothing but a smile.
Mrs. Henderson Presents tells the story of a courageous lady who takes an unconventional route after personal tragedy. After buying London’s Windmill theatre on a whim, she meets with a manager named Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), hoping he will run the business. Immediately, they engage in bickering love-hate banter, each taking turns offending the other. “You’re 20 minutes late…and you’re rude”, he says with a sourpuss expression. Although they seemingly can’t stand each other, there is a lingering sexual tension, and they agree to do business together (strictly professionally, of course.)
Van Damm comes up with a revolutionary idea for the theatre called “Revuedeville”, a series of musical vaudevilles performed nonstop throughout the day. While he insists on full artistic control, Mrs. Henderson meets his demand with inadvertent reluctance. She just can’t help from offering her two cents, ranging from “what a frivolous bore” to “how delicious!” Soon after, he bans her from the theatre, but she sneaks inside wearing a variety of costumes, including a foolish tap-dancing bear suit at an audition. There are no limits to Mrs. Henderson’s stubborn eccentricities, or Van Damm’s strong desire to run the company without her interference.
When “Revuedeville” becomes so popular that other local theaters copy it—bringing the Windmill to near bankruptcy—Mrs. Henderson steps in with the lucrative idea of getting girls naked on stage. But first, she must convince Lord Cromer (a surprisingly uptight Christopher Guest) to grant them permission within country guidelines. He finally agrees, unable to turn down this powerful woman, with the understanding that the girls must stand still resembling nude statues in a museum. There will be no jiggling, frolicking or the like. They recruit a group of young, beautiful women including Maureen (Kelly Reilly) to stand in the background and display what nature gave them, while the real singers and actors perform the show.
Mrs. Henderson Presents is a ton of fun with the flashy, energetic musical numbers and silly offbeat humor. Writer Martin Sherman (Indian Summer) provides a generally light, entertaining romp at the theater, and director Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things) continues his winning streak. The dynamic between Van Damm and Mrs. Henderson, played to perfection by Dench and Hoskins, is a throwback to 1940’s screwball comedies in the vein of His Girl Friday. They both wear their flaws like a badge of honor and it’s a hoot to watch them engage in verbal duels.
Where the movie falls short is when it injects drama into an otherwise pleasant, easygoing story. The blitzkrieg hits, bombs start striking London (World War II), and a twinge of forced drama explodes with them. For example there's a scene where Mrs. Henderson is standing on a soapbox, speaking out to crowds about her deceased son and why the theater should remain open amidst the outside mayhem. The obviously scripted artificiality of the moment is distracting. The same is true for the unnecessary death of one of the characters, which fails to hit an emotional note. In these brief spots, the movie struggles to find its footing.
The story is inspired by true events, and it's easy to distinguish which scenes are real and which are written in for dramatic effect. Thankfully, most of the film's run is a rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing, grand ole time. It's tough to make a movie that includes screwball comedy humor, musical numbers, and a backdrop of war-stricken London. Mrs. Henderson Presents rises to the occasion and generally shines, earning a well-deserved round of applause.