A delightful presentation
By Lady Liberty
Mrs. Henderson Presents
*** out of ****
Mrs. Henderson Presents was originally shown at a couple of American film festivals in early October of 2005, and then premiered to regular theatre-goers in major markets in December. I heard about the film and was intrigued by it then. Unfortunately, it didn't show up in my part of the country until now. But as luck would have it, there were no major releases in which I had any interest for me this week. Combined with the Oscar nomination for star Judi Dench, I was happy to see the movie on a "better late than never" basis.
British society maven Mrs. Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) is left widowed — and entirely bored — by her wealthy husband. Her closest friend, the also widowed Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow) suggests Mrs. Henderson find a hobby such as weaving, or that she volunteer to help run a charity. To her credit, Mrs. Henderson does make some small efforts along those lines. But embroidery can't hold her interest, and charity work is far too staid for her. That's when she discovers a dilapidated theatre on London's West End and, when it proves to be for sale, buys it almost literally on a spur-of-the-moment whim.
Lady Conway is amused and bemused, but she warns Mrs. Henderson that owning and renovating the building isn't enough: she'll need a manager. Enter Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), an irascible but talented theatre manager who just happens to be looking for a job. The two clash from their very meeting, but Mrs. Henderson knows talent when she sees it and hires Van Damm anyway. For his part, Van Damm thinks Mrs. Henderson is all but impossible, but he needs a job and this one is tailor-made for him.
Van Damm proudly "steals" the headlining singer/actor from another theatre, and with Bertie's (Will Young) input, begins hiring a cast for the newly named Windmill Theatre's first production. Mrs. Henderson and Mr. Van Damm agree on little else, but both of them do think that a musical review is the ideal offering for the theatre. As it turns out, audiences agree. But when other theatres are quick to jump on the bandwagon, the Windmill begins to lose business and more than a little money. Just when Van Damm is urging Mrs. Henderson to cut her losses and lock the doors, she offers up her latest brainstorm: Nude girls.
Van Damm is, of course, properly shocked. He also presents the one hurdle that, even if all others are breached, will likely prevent such a show from ever seeing the light of day. That, of course, is the required approval of Lord Cromer, the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest). "Oh, little Tommy?" says Mrs. Henderson. "I'll talk to him."
Despite her obvious familiarity with the Lord Chamberlain, Van Damm isn't convinced Mrs. Henderson can talk her way past this formidable obstacle. But in her usual manner, she somehow convinces the sputtering official that her presentations will be "art" and that as such they should be permitted in much the same way museums display nudity without censure.
Now Van Damm must work to hire still more performers, all of whom must be beautiful women who are willing to take their clothes off onstage. When he runs into difficulties finding the kind of girls he wants in London, he and Bertie take a road trip into the country. There, purely by accident, they discover the beautiful Maureen (Kelly Reilly). Since she's looking for a job, Van Damm's dubious proposal is accepted and she joins the troupe in London where several presentations are rehearsed and finally ready for the public to see.
With Maureen as one of the theatre's brightest new stars, and in the London of the early 1940's, the shows are an unqualified success. The shows are, of course, pure frivolity, and there are those who condemn them while Londoners look to the east and Adolf Hitler's grinding approach. The British are horrified when Hitler rounds up Danish Jews and invades France; later, matters are made far worse by the air raids commencing on London itself. As the entire city is caught up in one fiery battle after another, Mrs. Henderson is determined, even in the face of such hardship and danger, to keep her venue open and operating.
There's more to her actions than blind bravery: Mrs. Henderson believes the distraction of her shows serves a purpose even beyond pure entertainment. That doesn't mean that she's not profoundly affected by the war, nor that Van Damm will remain himself untouched by tragedy. Still, the show must go on, even amidst turmoil, terror, and the grave threats of the Luftwaffe's almost nightly bombing runs.
Judi Dench, who is nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by a Lead Actress, is formidable indeed as Mrs. Henderson. With her deft performance, we see both Mrs. Henderson's great strength and vulnerability onscreen, and we laugh with her and weep for her accordingly. Bob Hoskins is also more than a little impressive. Thelma Barlow is a delightful foil for Dench's penchant for pushing the envelope, and Christopher Guest is entirely believable as the stuffy Lord Chamberlain. Kelly Reilly is a very pretty girl, and perfectly cast as Maureen, while Will Young is never less than fun to watch. In fact, the entire cast is entirely up to the chore of bringing this historic drama to life.
As sure as Stephen Frears' direction is, and as wonderful as Martin Sherman's screenplay may be, it's really the story itself that sets Mrs. Henderson Presents apart. Based on true events, and with superlative sets and cinematography, the impact of the movie is deceptive. It's billed as a comedy, and I did laugh more than a few times. But there are moments of heart-wrenching drama as well, and of uplifting raw courage, too. Mrs. Henderson Presents is very much the whole package, and my only regret in having seen the movie is that it wasn't possible for me to see it sooner. I loved the movie, and I suspect most of you will, too.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Mrs. Henderson Presents is rated R for "nudity and brief language." Young children aren't going to enjoy this movie purely from the standpoint of plot, anyway. But for the teen who can appreciate good acting, beautiful sets, and a great story, I can't argue against buying them a ticket to go with you. The nudity isn't salacious nor is there any remotely overt sexuality involved; the language in question is, indeed, brief (I can only think of two words in the entire film that might prove objectionable to some). I recommend Mrs. Henderson Presents highly for those of about 14 or 15 and up, and sincerely hope that if the opportunity arises for you to see the film you'll jump at the chance to do so.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at email@example.com.