Live, Nude Girls, bons mots…and a thankfully clothed, but still excellent, gem of a Dame

BY KHALILAH WALTERS

Director Stephen Frears’ comedic drama, Mrs. Henderson Presents, is based on a true story and set in the period between World Wars I and II. Upon a friend’s urging to take up a hobby, newly widowed and fabulously well-to-do Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) buys an old theatre in Soho, London. She opens a performance hall, the Windmill, which features unprecedented nonstop performances.

Despite Mrs. Henderson’s enthusiasm and deep pockets, her ignorance of the industry means that she must hire someone else to manage the Windmill. Enter legendary impresario, Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins). In his hands, the revue soon enjoys enormous success. Thanks to Mrs. Henderson’s machinations, the Windmill manages to distinguish itself – and obliterate the copycat competition – by featuring nude performers in its nonstop revue. The revue, “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” does not miss a beat even as the horrors of World War II are visited upon the stage of the Windmill, stalwartly abiding by the principle that “the show must go on.”

As is to be expected of the Grande Dame of the thespian arts, Judi Dench is fantastic as Mrs. Henderson, a feisty, troublemaking battleaxe. Dench’s role, combining equal parts British stiff upper lip, churlish brat, and purveyor extraordinaire of the stinging retort, is one of the movie’s highlights. She is a joy to watch as she works on the Lord Chamberlain to secure a permit for on-stage nudity with the flimsy pretext of its artfulness.

The chemistry between actors Dench and Hoskins is marvelous. In the middle of their ceaseless skirmishes of acerbic wit, they even manage to peddle geriatric sexual tension without inflicting major psychic discomfort. Discovery of Mr. Van Damm’s family situation complicates and heightens the tension of their love-hate relationship and adds an appealing intricacy to the plot.

Theatricality and wit appear to be screenwriter Martin Sherman’s strong suits, and it is when he veers from this course that the film falters. Maybe the creators deemed it unambitious to have such heavyweights as Dench and Hoskins star in a film devoid of respectable gravitas, coasting along for the cheap thrills (to say nothing of the full frontal male nudity) with nary a true conflict in sight. We learn about Mrs. Henderson’s family heartbreak and how it all explains her interest in vaudeville and particularly revues featuring women’s naughty bits. The leaden weight of the war is brought to bear on the frolic and festivities of the Windmill’s family of entertainers. Mrs. Henderson Presents, unfortunately, degenerates into a formulaic big cinema production towards the end. But some crisp editing spares us the full brunt of any potential torture involved in finding and driving home the sentimental point.

If Mrs. Henderson Presents is increasingly festooned with kernels of cliché and sentimentality, it is mercifully edited to reign in the cheese quotient. One comes away with the feeling of a film that really just wants to entertain, but is compelled by cinematic mores to give an easily accessible explication of its characters’ motivations, and a satisfying if simplistic resolution. Like the Windmill’s pretensions to artful nudity, Mrs. Henderson Presents’ pretensions to a compelling point are farcically transparent. There’s not enough tragedy for the tragicomedy to which the film aspires. And what if it does lack a gut-wrenching, transformative dramatic conflict? In the end, Mrs. Henderson Presents manages to balance the tears with tasteful, naughty laughter, and that’s entertainment.

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