Mrs. Henderson Presents

Reviewed By brianorndorf
Posted 12/09/05 00:38:44

"I've seen Bob Hoskins's dick! Who wants to touch me?"
3 stars (Just Average)

When Judi Dench stars in a film, there’s a certain expectation of serene British material. “Mrs. Henderson Presents” plays against that type, fashioning a bawdy, decidedly R-rated experience that might shock Dench’s core demographic. Humorous and entertaining, but unable to keep from sinking in the seas of melodrama, “Henderson” is amiable, and pulls Dench out of the rut she was in.

After losing her beloved and respected husband, Laura Henderson is at a loss as to what to do with her wealth and time. Looking for a diversion, Henderson buys a decrepit London theater with hopes to stage a vaudeville show. Hiring producer Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), the theater, The Windmill, begins to run a revue all hours of the day, bringing instant success, yet also spawning copycats. Distraught, Henderson requests something the London theater district hasn’t seen: a topless revue. After easing the local censor’s (Christopher Guest) complaints with her charms, Henderson’s new show lights up the area, and, with the start of World War II, brings peace to soldiers who come to rely on The Windmill for distraction.

With the name Judi Dench attached to “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” there’s a certain expectation of the material presented. As one of the top actresses of our day, Dench has a habit of routinely playing stiff-upper-lip characters, typically in films about disapproval and sprawling English countrysides. “Mrs. Henderson” opens like any other Dench film: impeccably dressed, filthy rich Britons tight fisting their emotions, but then it swerves into uncharted areas.

Directed by Stephen Frears (“The Grifters,” “Dirty Pretty Things”), “Mrs. Henderson” is a loose biopic of Laura Henderson, who gave laughs and titillation to a country that was starved for amusement during WWII. As realized by screenwriter Martin Sherman (“Bent”), the film is a broad comedy, tinged with tragedy, but not nearly enough to overcome some of the more outlandish material found here. What initially seems to be a polite little farce about a polite little lady soon becomes a raunchy R-rated affair, complete with copious amounts of nudity and Dench spitting out a popular slang word for female genitalia – one of two scenes I could’ve gone my whole life without seeing (the other being a quick moment of full frontal nudity from Bob Hoskins).

Frears is having a grand old time staging the musical numbers, adding a smidge of theatrical spark to the film when the script constantly veers toward melodrama. There’s also a strong historical perspective in the film, seen through computer aided, but vivid recreations of wartime London, a city stuck in a permanent state of bombing panic. Unfortunately, “Mrs. Henderson” falls into formula as it seeks to put a serious face on the proceedings, shown in the tragic match up Henderson negotiates between one of her performers and a lonely officer who is hopelessly smitten. Truncated and emotionally pushy, the subplot only manages to drab up the film, and demonstrate a considerable lack of vision on the part of Frears.

Whatever inabilities Frears might show in his direction, he’s assembled a terrific cast to piece it together. Bob Hoskins is mischievous as the theater producer Vivian Van Damm, unprepared for Henderson’s ribaldry, yet thoroughly enjoying the view, as it were; Kelly Reilly (“Pride & Prejudice”) gives the film a needed kick of sultriness as one of the nude models, and Judi Dench really sinks her teeth into the title role. Freed from her costume drama chains, Dench has a marvelous time with Henderson’s impish nature and loose lips, realizing, in her optimism, that the war will not destroy the spirit of the theater world she’s come to love.

“Mrs. Henderson Presents” bestows Dench with a distinctive role, and her feisty enthusiasm saves the picture from becoming obese with narrative ambition.

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