Thursday, January 12, 2006

Meant to be a rollicking and irresistible showcase for Judi Dench, “Mrs. Henderson Presents” stars the Academy Award winner as Laura Henderson, a wealthy English widow who acquired a shuttered London theater called the Windmill in the early 1930s. (The film compresses several years of her patronage into a tidier time frame.) At loose ends after the death of her husband, Mrs. Henderson decided to dabble in show business and renovated the Windmill, which had been a film and legit theater, as a showcase for musical revues.

The management was entrusted to an experienced West End producer called Vivian Van Damm, played by Bob Hoskins, who gets the slow-burning characterization in this particular facetious partnership, matching a capricious snob with a forbearing pro. Initially, Laura and Vivian put a distinctive stamp on the Windmill with continuous performances: five daily shows of a tuneful miscellany called “Revuedeville.”

When their format is imitated by competitors, another brainstorm provides a fresh edge: statuesque nudity, with chorines posed picturesquely during production numbers. According to the movie, Mrs. Henderson helps sell this innovation to a potential party pooper, Christopher Guest as Lord Cromer, whose duties as Lord Chamberlain include theater censorship. Supposedly an old family friend of the petitioner, he talks himself into the idea that frozen postures will not offend public decency, allowing the Windmill to flourish anew. During the war years this selling point acquires an added patriotic rationale when servicemen flock to the Windmill.

Not exactly proven hands with musicals, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Martin Sherman (best known as the playwright of “Bent”) fumble their way through a learning curve while trying to fake it with “Mrs. Henderson.” Unable to contrive a corker of a personality clash from the improbable Henderson-Van Damm alliance, they also fail to invent adequate subplots, romantic or otherwise, that might flatter the showgirls and add a younger emphasis to the backstage interplay.

A handful of musical interludes are certainly welcome, but all remain perilously stilted as staged and photographed within the Windmill proscenium. Nudity emerges as the classiest aspect of the Windmill presentation. Two generations into hard-core porn, the recollection of modest titillation possesses a perversely old-fashioned, time-traveling charm and dignity.

The filmmakers flaunt unattractive aspects of their dowager heroine, notably an upper-crust anti-Semitism that takes brutally rude forms and justifies plenty of resentment in Van Damm, a Jew. Her insults and outbursts roil the mostly pokey, genial consistency of the film, but they aren’t exploited for subsequent follow-throughs or changes of heart that might be usefully edifying or exculpatory. Mrs. Henderson is just lousy company in too many scenes.

After Queen Victoria, Queen Bess and M, it’s a little difficult to embrace Judi Dench as a swaggering Mrs. Moneybags who supposedly rejuvenates the West End, evidently by acting insufferable.


TITLE: “Mrs. Henderson Presents”

RATING: R (Nudity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay by Martin Sherman. Cinematography by Andrew Dunn. Production design by Hugo Luczye-Wyhowski. Costume design by Sandy Powell. Hair and make-up design by Jenny Shircore. Choreography by Eleanor Fazan and Debbie Astell. Music by George Fenton

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes



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