Movie Review: Mrs. Henderson Presents
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
"Mrs. Henderson Presents" is a dear film, sentimental and fond, full of beautifully acted British resolve, copious undraped British bosoms - much of the story takes place in London's Windmill Theatre, famous for its coyly tasteful nude tableaux - and, briefly, the sight of Bob Hoskins' bait and tackle in medium shot. There wouldn't be a British film industry without performers of a certain age going starkers.
The movie has more going on, however, than it has coming off. Directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Martin Sherman, it concerns the lives and times of the Windmill, a legend in England if not in America. (The old Rita Hayworth picture "Tonight and Every Night" was about a Windmill chorine.) In the same way Americans treasure the deeply silly memory of the Ziegfeld Follies and its "glorification of the American girl," the British hold the Windmill's modestly budgeted displays of immodesty in high nostalgic regard. During the 1940 Nazi bombing of London, the Windmill was the sole London theater to keep its doors open. Much of the staff lived, for a time, in its below-ground dressing rooms. The Windmill's longtime slogan: "We Never Closed."
It's hard not to feel warmly toward such a venue.
In the early 1930s - the movie fudges the chronology by a few years - wealthy widow Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) bought the Windmill and turned programming matters over to manager Vivian Van Damm ( Hoskins). Modeled on the Moulin Rouge of Paris, the Windmill's "Revuedeville" shows offered patrons, largely male, carefully staged tableaux, in which the undraped female chorus aped various famous paintings or sculptures. They were not allowed to move, per instructions from the Lord Chamberlain.
Real-life comedians on the rise, from Harry Secombe to Peter Sellers, worked out their material in between the Windmill revues' musical bits. Today the Windmill venue is home to a lap-dance club. This chapter in the building's history is happily ignored by "Mrs. Henderson Presents."
The American-born screenwriter Sherman (who wrote "Bent," a somewhat different World War II-era story) juices up the roles of Henderson and Van Damm. Early on, Henderson, who lived for years with her husband in India, finds herself "bored with widowhood" and unwilling to return to India, although in India, as she says in her imperious fashion, "there were always people to look down upon." Having lost her only child, a son, in the Great War, the moneyed widow harbors her own private reasons for getting into the nude revue game, catnip to a new generation of military men.
Director Frears has a way of traversing film genres with ease. Twenty years ago he made one of the best films about multiethnic London ("My Beautiful Laundrette"), and in short order made one of the best modern noirs ("The Grifters") as well as one of the best of his generation's costume pictures ("Dangerous Liaisons"). More recently he scored with "Dirty Pretty Things," which has very little in common with a champagne-and-bitters affair like "Mrs. Henderson Presents." Except this: Frears brings out the best in his actors, and his technique is sharp, precise and unfussy. Here he taps each new scene as if it were a badminton birdie.
The script concocts a romance between featured onstage artiste Maureen (Kelly Reilly, of whom it truly can be said: Yow) and a fresh-faced soldier on leave. In a montage indicating a breathless five-day span, director Frears and editor Lucia Zucchetti blend scenes from the courtship with the revue's male juvenile, Bertie (Will Young), singing the great Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein ballad "All the Things You Are." It's old-fashioned moviemaking and storytelling. But at moments such as these "Mrs. Henderson Presents" can be extremely moving. Director Frears composes the movie as a love letter to those who survived the worst of the war, as well as to those who did not.
Dench has a wonderful time, as does Hoskins - they're like a poodle and bulldog music hall act. Dench is such a good actress that she gets you through even screenwriter Sherman's saggy middle stretch, in which Henderson and Van Damm come to a rather artificial impasse. This is followed by broadly comic routines involving Henderson dressing up as a Chinese woman or a polar bear in order to spy on her manager's activities. (The real Henderson did such things, but that doesn't make them any funnier.) Composer George Fenton's score grows a bit pushy here as well. But Dench has no rival when it comes to finessing comedy and drama in a period picture. By the time she delivers her climactic speech rallying the troops - literally, rallying British troops on leave, assembled outside the theater after the bombings - you buy every word of the sentiments expressed.
The real-life Van Damm, according to various Windmill alums, dallied with his share of chorines. By contrast "Mrs. Henderson Presents," produced with the full cooperation of Van Damm's family, goes out of its way to present the character's professional behavior as spotless. Well, no one said a movie has to tell the truth every little second. This one exists, willfully and with panache, in a rosy-toned realm of show business fable, wherein the sight of "English roses" without much on becomes a rebuke to Nazism itself.
"Mrs. Henderson Presents"
Directed by Stephen Frears; screenplay by Martin Sherman; cinematography by Andrew Dunn; production design by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski; music by George Fenton; edited by Lucia Zucchetti; produced by Laurie Borg and Norma Heyman. A Weinstein Co. release; opens Friday, June 13. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: R (nudity and brief language).
Laura Henderson - Judi Dench
Vivian Van Damm - Bob Hoskins
Bertie - Will Young
Maureen - Kelly Reilly
Lady Conway - Thelma Barlow
Lord Cromer - Christopher Guest