Judi Dench as Laura Henderson
Bob Hoskins as Vivian Van Damm
Will Young as Bertie
Kelly Reilly as Maureen
Thelma Barlow as Lady Conway
Christopher Guest as Lord Cromer
Elise Audeyev as Millerette
Anna Brewster as Doris
Victoria Hay as Millerette
Shona McWilliams as Gracie Kramer
Camille O’Sullivan as Jane
Doraly Rosen as Maggie
Sarah Solemani as Vera
Natalia Tena as Peggy
Dame Judi Dench is utterly delightful in this witty and whimsical crowd pleaser that showcases British musical comedy at its finest.
After the death of her husband, the eccentric Laura Henderson (Dame Judi Dench) has so much time and money on her hands that she buys the rundown Windmill Theatre as a hobby. With the help of her crusty theatre manager Mr. Van Damm (Hoskins), they turn London upside down with their all-day burlesque reviews featuring nude women, posed like statues.
After making the drama-thriller “Dirty Pretty Things,” the cinematic chameleon that is Stephen Frears has once again changed gears, creating a musical comedy set during the late 30s that falls somewhere between last year’s “Being Julia” and 2003’s “Calendar Girls.”
The core of the story is the conflict between the wonderfully wacky Mrs. Laura Henderson, an outspoken would-be patron of the arts who has money to throw away, and the gruff Vivian Van Damm, the theatre manager she hired, who has little patience for the whims of the idle rich. They’re quite a pair, to say the least.
At first, their musical revue and its continuous showing format is a hit until other theatres start to copy them. In an attempt to up the ante, Mrs. Henderson decides that they should offer nude women on stage, much like they do in France, but first she has to convince the Lord Chamberlain AKA “Little Tommy” to allow it, his condition being that the girls must stand perfectly still, like statues in a museum. Eventually, Henderson’s upper class friends give away to rowdy gentlemen looking for a bit of stationary T ‘n’ A, and the Windmill becomes legendary, especially when London is hit by the German blitzkrieg of World War II.
It’s surprising that there’s nothing quite like the Windmill Theatre today, combining singing and dancing with beautiful nude women, but playwright Martin Sherman (“The Boy From Oz”) has created a wonderful story based around the real theatre that allows for humor, drama and lavish musical numbers featuring classic tunes of the late ’30s. There’s so much to enjoy about his script, whether it be Mrs. Henderson’s eccentricities and the way she speaks her mind, to her squabbles with Hoskins’ Van Damm, which makes for classic cinema on a par with Tracy and Hepburn. At one point, she gets so fed up with him, that she swears to never return to the theatre. It’s a promise that she can’t keep, and we see her trying to find ways to sneak back into the theatre in disguise. Sherman uses the last act of the piece to make a subtle commentary about war, something also evident from the small detail about Mrs. Henderson having lost her only son during WWI.
The wonderful cast is led by Dame Judi Dench, still the grand duchess of cinema of course, and her note-perfect delivery of Sherman’s sharp dialogue is worth more than a few chuckles. This movie just wouldn’t have worked with any other actress. Likewise, Bob Hoskins may be the perfect sparring partner for her, and you have to love Christopher Guest as the Lord Chamberlin, who has just as many great scenes with Dench as Hoskins, with their various negotiations being a highlight of the movie.
There are only a few issues I had, like the black and white newsreel footage used to show the affects of war, which takes you out of what is a very colorful film otherwise. Also, a later story involving the dalliance between Kelly Reilly’s nude showgirl with a young soldier suitor takes things a bit off track from the platonic romance between Mrs. Henderson and Van Damme. That said, it sets things up for the film’s most beautiful moment, a montage of their affair accompanied by a simple rendition of the standard “All the Things You Are”, sung by British Idol Will Young, who has a small part as the theatre’s gay singing star Bertie.
Of course, the nudity plays a large part in the movie, but it’s all handled tastefully or humorously. That being said, I’m quite sure that I never needed to see Bob Hoskins’ “private bits.”
Still, a lot of credit has to be given to director Stephen Frears for staging such an amazing production on a relatively small budget. Obviously, it’s very different from the other films in his filmography, but by taking on a musical period piece without missing a step, he proves that he has that rare quality in all but the most skilled directors, the ability to adapt.
The Bottom Line:
At times “Mrs. Henderson Presents” may be obvious with its humor and drama, but it’s such a delightful joy to watch such a fine cast in such a sweet and simple movie that you can’t help but smile and cheer their efforts.
Mrs. Henderson Presents opens in New York, Los Angeles and select cities on Friday with a wider release on Christmas Day.