The first thing to know about Mrs. Henderson Presents, a period British comedy laced with a dash of tragedy and straining with uplift, is that it is inspired by true events. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the early part of World War II, the film tracks the history of the famous Windmill Theater in London after it was given new life by a bored widow of means named Laura Henderson. Henderson, played by Judi Dench with her familiar mixture of starch and twee, swept the Victorian cobwebs out of the Windmill, located right off Piccadilly Circus, by conceiving of shows featuring live nude girls — tastefully arranged, of course.
Henderson was assisted in her campaign to take the full monty to the London boards by a pugnacious stage manager, Vivian van Damm (Bob Hoskins, who helped produce the film). Apparently, Van Damm's Dutch Jewish heritage both amused and intrigued Henderson, who, at least as conceived by the American-born screenwriter Martin Sherman, tends to drop adjectives like “delicious,” call the vaguest acquaintance “dear” and utter pronouncements that might seem rather more rude if spoken by anyone less twinkly and wrinkly. On discovering that Van Damm is Jewish, Henderson announces that “one must make do.” He consequently does call her rude, but he needs a job and signs up, anyway. A strange partnership is born, along with a wafer-thin pretext for a feature-length film.
The rest is the usual song and dance: Henderson opens her purse, Van Damm hires the help, and together they put on a really mediocre show. The public eats it up, nonetheless, never more ravenously than after some of the female talent appears onstage wearing nothing but strategic shadows and even more strategically positioned props. Van Damm invokes Botticelli and classical art, but the young women posed on the half-shell, under a gigantic lamp and inside empty picture frames are strictly from kitsch. Unlike the fan dancers and hootchy-kootchy gals who once drove Mayor Fiorello La Guardia into paroxysms of moralistic rage, forcing padlocks on 42nd Street, the Windmill nudists had to pose stock still. At least the fan dancers could show off their motor skills along with their assets.
Mrs. Henderson PresentsDirected by: Stephen FrearsStarring: Judi Dench (Laura Henderson), Bob Hoskins (Vivian Van Damm), Will Young (Bertie), Christopher Guest (Lord Cromer), Kelly Reilly (Maureen), Thelma Barlow (Lady Conway)Running Time: 108 minutesTaiwan Release: Today
The combined forces of Dench's and Hoskins's charm and professionalism help obscure the second and only other thing to know about this film: there isn't much going on in Mrs. Henderson Presents beyond the odd-couple routine, some gaudy musical numbers and artful nudity. The director, Stephen Frears, keeps things moving at a nice clip and doesn't tarry long during the story's side trips into the maudlin, but neither does he try to put much personality into the proceedings: this is principally the Bob and Judi show, complete with boisterous fights, silly pantomime (banned from the theater, Mrs. Henderson sneaks in, kitted out in a polar bear suit and Chinese drag) and a rich helping of sentimentalism that might make you gag if it were spooned up by less practiced con artists.
Peter Sellers appeared at the Windmill in 1948, doing vocal impressions and warbling a song written for him by his father, which is enough to suggest a more interesting history than the one imparted here. The story of the British music hall may well be chock-full of eccentric aristocrats with stiff upper lips and hearts of gold, English roses who happily open their petals, and plucky young men ready to serve God and king, but how much more agreeable it would be to discover a couple of real people mixed in with the usual shopworn cliches. Watching this reasonably funny, professionally assembled calculation is a little like snuggling up in front of the television with a mug of hot cocoa and a warm blanket. Those who prefer their drinks and recreation spiked would do well to look elsewhere.