The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Mrs. Henderson Presents

Originally published 12/9/05
Full review behind the jump

Mrs. Henderson Presents

: Stephen Frears
: Martin Sherman
: Norma Heyman
: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Kelly Reilly, Thelma Barlow, Christopher Guest

In order to fully appreciate the scene which best sums up
Mrs. Henderson Presents, you’ll need to be familiar with a rude gesture particular to the British. The person delivering said gesture, and the event it is being delivered in response to, speaks volumes about the peculiar way that a little corner theatre called the Windmill provided a bit of pluck to a downtrodden London during World War II. They did it first of all by staying open for business even through the worst of the Blitz. But much more importantly, their business was nude women.

And so from this slightly inspiring and slightly naughty historical anecdote springs a charmingly slight movie from the versatile director Stephen Frears (
Dangerous Liaisons, The Snapper, High Fidelity). For your money you get a full bill of entertainment – smashing lead performances from two wily screen veterans, some perky songs, dancing, comedy, and breasts. It won’t change your life, but doesn’t it sound like a fine way to spend two hours?

Like anyone, Mrs. Henderson (Dame Judi Dench) is ill-prepared for the life of a widow. So high is the society she mingles in, so crowded with sympathetic mourners is her house, that she must row a boat into a secluded spot on the river just for a moment’s private grief. But there are advantages – her best friend (Thelma Barlow) informs her that widows are allowed all sorts of indulgences they couldn’t have had in married life: eccentricities, lovers, even hobbies.

Mrs. Henderson has plenty of eccentricities, but she can’t embroider and she finds most ladies’ charities silly, so instead on a whim she buys the abandoned Windmill and hires the flamboyant artistic tyrant Vivian Van Dam (Bob Hoskins) to run it. Knowing what we find out about her later, we might think she already has something in mind, but for now we sense no agenda – it’s a bauble for her, she refers to theatrical performers as “these delightful creatures”. She has enough money that she doesn’t particularly care how much she loses, and Van Dam insists on absolute creative control. The two suit each other so well that Mrs. Henderson is apt to browbeat an assistant for interrupting them in the middle of a perfectly good argument.

When Van Dam’s first crowd-pleasing innovation, all-day shows, is aped by every house in town, it falls to Mrs. Henderson to deliver the next brainstorm. At first everyone considers her matter-of-fact suggestion of putting nude women on stage as just some madness they’re obliged to hear out since she signs the checks, but she’s perfectly serious. It’s thought impossible – the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) must approve all productions, and he’s known to keep a strict eye on decency. But when you’re Mrs. Henderson, who can get away with calling the Lord Chamberlain “Tommy”, your arguments find an unusual receptiveness.

They strike an intriguing compromise – if the naked women remain perfectly still on stage in artistic “tableaus”, it can be argued that they are no more offensive than nudes in a portrait gallery. Mr. Van Dam takes to his casting task with enthusiasm – gazing on a row of breasts, he dismisses one set as looking “Italian”. “We need English nipples” he says with a gleam in his eye.

They assemble a troupe of nudes led by the angelic Maureen (Kelly Reilly), plug them into the musical numbers, and it becomes a rather loving showbiz family, as well as an unqualified sensation. Van Dam and Mrs. Henderson dote on their nudes, and their insistence on treating them with respect spreads. When the war breaks out, the bonds grow only tighter – and all the affection and straightforward show-must-go-on urgency soon defuses the shock of flesh unabashedly on display.

It’s refreshing in ways I could fill a whole review with to see nudity treated with such casual amusement in a film. For fairness’ sake the men provide a small share too, leading to the rather perfect line of dialogue: “Why, Mr. Van Dam! You are Jewish!” Relaxing the audience frees us to laugh at the many reactions the audience on screen experiences. And seeing the perseverance of this enterprise does become, well, slightly inspiring.

The movie doesn’t shy from the assertion that Mrs. Henderson is near bonkers – she gets in a feud with Mr. Van Dam, declares she will never set foot in the theater again, then sneaks in disguised as a Chinese woman to spy on the work – but it also presents the real tragedies that drive her to this scheme, and the joy it provides her. So few movies build leading roles for an actress of Dench’s age; we’re used to appreciating her brilliance in small doses, so it’s a rare pleasure to see how capably she carries a movie. And Hoskins – who initiated the project with his producing partner Norma Heyman – finds the reserves to match her energy, no small task.

Every glimpse we get of the evolving revue, packed with classic standards of the 30’s and 40’s, leaves us impressed and wanting for more. This isn’t just some rudimentary choreography we flash past, time and effort have gone into making this look and feel like an authentic, well-rehearsed variety show, right down to the soft tenor of its star (British pop idol Will Young).

There’s an old-fashioned stylization to the comedy that might feel repetitive or stale, and the movie threatens to get emotional whiplash with the storylines it tries to address in its length. The script, by playwright Martin Sherman, often is a deliberate throwback, which unfortunately also comes part and parcel with a certain lack of sophisticated exposition. But its enthusiasm is a final point in its favor. You’ll have a good time in Mrs. Henderson Presents, which is just what she wanted the men coming to the Windmill to have.


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