After losing a son in World War I, and becoming a widow in 1937, the wealthy and respectable Mrs. Henderson (Dench) decides that the best way to support soldiers going off to battle is to give them a wartime send-off they'll never forget. Thus, she buys and renovates the Windmill Theatre in London's Soho district, hires Mr. Vivian Van Damm (Hoskins) as the impresario of an all-day musical variety show called "Revudeville," and secures permission from the censorious Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest) to include naked women in the stage show--on the condition that the ladies remain still onstage to qualify as "art," like nude portraits in a gallery, with the "foliage" of their "midlands" discreetly obscured. "Revudeville" is an instant hit, British propriety remains tastefully intact, and as The Windmill's fortunes rise, fall, and rise again, Mrs. Henderson Presents develops an emotional depth and good-natured nobility that's perfectly matched to the comedy of tweaking British manners.
Working from an eloquently witty, fact-based screenplay by Martin Sherman, director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity) brings out the best in a well-chosen cast, and Andrew Dunn's cinematography (enhanced by judicious use of digital effects to show the London blitz in progress) casts a warm, inviting glow over this winning tale of show-biz tenacity in the best and worst of times. --Jeff Shannon
Based on a true story, the movie begins in 1937 when the wealthy Laura Henderson (Dench) has just been widowed. Refusing to go gently into widowhood, Laura heeds the advice of her friend Lady Conway (a riotous Thelma Barlow) and finds herself a hobby. But she just can't handle needlepoint, and being a board member on various charities just isn't her thing, so instead, she decides to buy a run down property on Great Windmill Street in Soho with the intention of turning it into a theater.
Of course, Mrs. Henderson knows nothing about running a music hall, so she enlists the help of Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), a currently unemployed theatre manager. The problem is that Laura and Vivian don't exactly see eye to eye - Vivian sees Laura as snotty and rude, a product of her privileged class, while Laura views Vivian as "Jewish" a cigar smoker who is kind of low class.
It doesn't help that they also end up clashing professionally. They're both strong willed individuals, who each have different artistic visions for the theater, with most of their time taken up arguing and trading acerbic barbs at one another. But eventually they manage to sort out their differences and make a go at it, and success comes quickly, with shows running almost continually. This daily novelty, however, can't withstand competition from movie houses and other vaudeville shows in the West End.
Laura decides to add nude young women to the mix, hoping that it will increase attendance, but her old friend the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) isn't wild about the idea. He tells her that he'll reluctantly license the show as long as the naked ladies stand perfectly still on stage, thereby skirting around the draconian English censorship laws.
Mrs. Henderson Presents is everything one should expect from a British film, and in the hands of a director of the caliber of Stephen Frears, the film is an absolute pleasure to watch. Spanning from the pre-war years up until the London blitz, the film captures the darker pulses of the Second World War, while also remaining strangely lighthearted in tone and character.
Thanks to a gorgeously fluid script by Martin Sherman, and the talented cast, the film is mostly pitch perfect. The musical interludes have a flashy charm there's the presence of fourteen vintage stage musical numbers, including Benny Goodman's Goody Goody and the classically jaunty Babies of the Blitz. The supporting players also lend a startling authenticity to the proceedings - Kelly Reilly is particularly memorable as a spunky Windmill girl and cute Pop Idol winner Will Young makes an appealing big screen debut as Bertie, the theater's resident male ingénue, who tells Laura that he's "of the other persuasion."
Mrs. Henderson Presents may be old-fashioned, but it's also witty, and lots of fun. But make no mistake; this is Ms. Dench's film. And while Hoskins is delightful as Laura's foil, it is really the grand Dame of British acting that steals the show and takes command of the film. She's just pitch perfect in the role of "a most exasperating woman," who says whatever's on her mind, and has an endlessly sharp tongue. This is one of her best roles. Mike Leonard December 05.
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