Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mrs. Henderson Presents

MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS (Stephen Frears, 2005)

Recently widowed Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) has no intention of filling her days with knitting or tea time gossip. She wants to enjoy life during wartime and, as she will later declare, believes that it is a noble calling. Mrs. Henderson buys a theater in London’s West End because it seems like a fun thing to do, and she hires Vivan Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to run it. The two bicker constantly, but their agreement to hold continuous revues at the Windmill Theatre is a success. This winning idea falters when other theaters copy them. To distinguish the Windmill from the competition, Mrs. Henderson proposes having nude women in the performances. Mr. Van Damm doubts that Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) will approve such an idea, but Mrs. Henderson persuades him that such displays will be tasteful, even if the ladies are required to remain completely still.

In the tradition of THE FULL MONTY and CALENDAR GIRLS, MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS is a mildly naughty comedy that finds Brits doffing duds for money. (Like CALENDAR GIRLS, this film is based on a true story.) True to Mrs. Henderson’s word, the nudity is handled with an artistic, rather than lascivious, touch. MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS balances its cheeky mischievousness with a sense of the encroaching dangers of World War II, so it’s not all frolicking with disrobed actresses while London is bombed. Director Stephen Frears manages both aspects with a matter of fact tone, an honest approach that makes it less lurid than it sounds on the surface.

The film can overstate things a bit in justifying the bared flesh. As it turns out, Mrs. Henderson’s motivation for putting on a nude revue was more than financial. Her son was killed during World War I. After his death she found a French postcard among his possessions, and it saddened her to think that his shortened life only offered him that way of seeing a woman unclothed. Late in the film outside her shuttered theater, she proclaims the value of letting the young soldiers get a glimpse of the naked female form. Nevertheless, this moment and another with a solider who reminds Mrs. Henderson of her son get to the heart of what drove her to take chances that her contemporaries wouldn’t dare attempt.

Maureen (Kelly Reilly), the revue’s star, and the other naked ladies may be the enticement, but the main attraction of MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS is Dench and Hoskins squabbling like the old married couple that they aren’t. In this stage of her career Dench has thrived playing characters who deliver withering comments without a second thought. Mrs. Henderson isn’t a challenge for Dench, but she relishes playing this feisty old broad who knows what she wants and does it. One of the funniest scenes shows Mrs. Henderson wearing a costume to sneak into her theater under the nose of Mr. Van Damm, who has banned her. In that way the scene is representative of the film, using the guise of undressed women to smuggle in the story of a mother’s long-held grief.

Grade: B-

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