Movie review by Greg Carlson
A modest diversion that coasts by on nostalgia, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” displays nowhere near the level of quality that defines veteran director Stephen Frears’ strongest work. A backstage comedy loosely based on “true events” (whatever those might be), “Mrs. Henderson Presents” blends widowhood, World War II, and the West End into a mildly engaging period piece. As Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damm, Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are terrific in their roles, but the low budget and the script’s lack of ambition conspire to give the film the air of a made-for-TV time-filler. Surely the fascinating history of London’s Windmill Theater merits a deeper look than this one.
Beginning in 1937 with the funeral of Mrs. Henderson’s husband, the movie trots along at a brisk clip. Mrs. Henderson tires immediately of typical dowager pursuits, and trades her needlepoint and charity work for a boarded-up Soho theater, which she transforms almost overnight into a successful musical revue house. Mrs. Henderson also forms an unlikely partnership with Van Damm, an old pro who insists on artistic autonomy as the theater’s creative director. Naturally, Van Damm and Henderson don’t see eye to eye on every matter concerning the Windmill, and the witty sparring that attends virtually all of their conversations is at the heart of the movie’s charms.
When other theaters begin to copy the Windmill’s successful formula, Mrs. Henderson insists that Van Damm begin preparations to stage revues featuring nude women. A visit to the snooty Lord Chamberlain (a restrained Christopher Guest, just on the verge of being funny) clears the legal hurdles, although the Windmill must limit its fleshly displays to artfully lit tableaux. The movie’s middle section largely concerns itself with the casting and staging of the Windmill’s new stock in trade, and several of the musical numbers showcase clever, kitschy ways to titillate the audiences comprised largely of young soldiers on their way to the front lines.
The middle section also settles on a mostly unfocused – and completely rushed – subplot revolving around the nude revue’s star attraction, played by Kelly Reilly, who recently appeared as Caroline Bingley in the vastly superior “Pride & Prejudice.” Reilly is a fine performer, but the character she plays in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” entirely lacks definition, which prohibits the audience from making the necessary emotional investment in her fortunes. This is surely too bad, since Martin Sherman’s screenplay asks the viewers to find some time to brush aside some tears when the below-ground Windmill becomes a shelter during the punishing Nazi air raids.
Frears mixes in stock footage of bombed out London, but the grainy images cannot compensate for the lean production values displayed following the Blitz. By the time Mrs. Henderson delivers a rousing speech to a mob of troops looking to crowd inside the Windmill, the sentimentalism is shifted into the highest gear. The revelation of why Mrs. Henderson chose to feature nudity on her stage is pure corn, but the irrepressible Dench manages to get through the lines without complete embarrassment. In fact, Dench’s spirit of fun rescues “Mrs. Henderson Presents” from total disaster; she’s as delightful to see as the undressed attractions at her music hall.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/20/06.