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Mrs. Henderson Presents

Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins and naked women on stage! What more could you ask for? Even if it does tend to get a tad maudlin in spots, Mrs. Henderson Presents is a delightfully sweet little indie about a slice of London's theater history.


It's 1937. Mrs. Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), a 69 year-old wealthy widow, staves off boredom by buying an old theater in London's Soho, which she turns into the Windmill Theatre. She also hires Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) as her creative director. Their love-hate relationship certainly isn't a partnership made in heaven, but they have acute collaborative minds. Their revolutionary ideas of non-stop musical entertainment, combined with nude women on stage, innovate British theater while rocking the establishment, as does Mrs. Henderson's unwavering devotion to keep the theater open during the London bombings in WWII. Mrs. Henderson Presents stands as a testament to this real life woman--and the talented people surrounding her--who brought hope and merriment during troubled times.


Isn't it fortunate the British keep writing the most marvelous roles for their aging actresses? Dench bullies her way through as the highly irascible but entirely lovable Mrs. Henderson, as well as etching the deep sorrow from Mrs. Henderson's life on her face. The always excellent Hoskins is perfectly suited as her counterpart, Mr. Van Damm. They do make a fine pair, as his no-nonsense approach clashes with Mrs. Henderson's eccentricities, providing the film's more deliciously witty moments. As for the supporting players on stage, pop singer Will Young (who won the British equivalent of American Idol) stands out in his acting debut as Bertie, the star of the musical revues. British stage actress Kelly Reilly also turns in a solid performance as the tragic Maureen, the most exquisite of the nude Windmill girls.


Director Stephen Frears has eclectic tastes. He's done gritty realism (The Grifters), relationship comedy (High Fidelity), period piece (Dangerous Liaisons). But apparently, Mrs. Henderson Presents proved to be the director's biggest challenge to date because of the amount of musical performance involved. He explains, "Songs and music are tyrannical: once you start a phrase of music you have to complete it. So I found all that very, very tricky." Thorny as it may sound, Frears still does an admirable job juxtaposing the musical numbers on stage with the dramedy. The film, however, loses some steam once the bombs start dropping and turns too serious. We know war is hell. That's why--like those brave soldiers who flocked to the Windmill for a much needed break from reality--we want to watch high-spirited comedy, with a little nudity sprinkled in.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.