Mrs. Henderson Presents is a mildly entertaining period musical about London's Windmill theater and its Tableau Vivants variety entertainments spiced with discreet, "artful" nudity. It's generally successful but at times appears to be a group of extremely interesting actors in search of a better dramatic vehicle. Bob Hoskins fares well in a straight-man role, and Judi Dench does well with a cheery but inconsistent character. London in the 1930s and 40s is re-created mostly through the casting, costuming and hairstyles of the young group of variety dancers and nude models known as the Millerettes.
Mrs. Henderson Presents is tasteful, inoffensive and attractive, but even though it's based on true events, it seems too careful and it lacks conflict. Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are endearing, but their Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm are misused in sitcom-like confrontations. She argues with him over his authority, what name to give the chorines and the cruelty of the audition process, problems that produce funny lines but aren't satisfying as character interaction. She's incensed to discover that he's married but the script doesn't develop her feelings as much as pigeonhole them as the cute eccentricities of a supposedly spoiled, rich London matron.
The script busily contrasts Mrs. Henderson's narrow-minded qualities with her other "thoroughly modern" attitudes. She's liberated enough to commit to the daring nudity idea and to shock poor Lord Cromer with her choice of language, which still comes off as rather hard to believe. The script tells us that Mrs. Henderson is adventurous by having her fly in a biplane, and suggests that she's deep and soulful when she periodically takes to a rowboat to reflect on her situation. She takes wistful journeys to visit her son's grave, yet dons preposterous Japanese makeup to sneak into her own theater. She seems a more a collection of eccentric behaviors than a fully realized character.
Mrs. Henderson Presents spends much of its time as a great-looking backstage musical in period dress. As a commentator in one of the featurettes observes, the Millerettes have the correct 1930's "soft" look instead of today's gym-toned dancers. The script again skirts over the experience as a series of anecdotes; none of the performers have much of a chance to build a character - all of the quality screen time goes to the two stars. Able singing talent (pop star Will Young) gets good billing but few dramatic opportunities. Beautiful Kelly Reilly is the nude given the most attention, but after a nice introduction crashing her bicycle into a rainy canal, even she stays a marginal presence. The girls are given exposition dialogue and a few naughty moments, as when a mouse is let loose on stage to give the audience -- and us -- a cheap thrill. "Stay still for the censor" my foot ... what do you think we came to see, posed models?
When the war years come the show decides to get serious. We're treated to stirring evocations of patriotism such as the old standby, the performance that continues right through a frightening air raid. Van Damm is chided for talking like Winston Churchill and Mrs. Henderson proudly does her bit by not buying a new hat. Finally, Mrs. Henderson takes an active role after being moved by (or attracted to) a boy who reminds her of her own son lost in WW1. Beautiful Maureen says she's purposely avoiding soldiers because she's too emotional, but Mrs. Henderson sets her up with the boy.
One off-screen romance later, the boy is going to go back to his girlfriend but Maureen is pregnant. (Spoiler spoiler:) That's when Mrs. Henderson Presents has the gall to trot out the oldest, most backward plot development of all time: Maureen's inconvenient pregnancy is resolved by a German bomb. That's what movies used to do when they wanted to dodge a sticky moral issue, or "punish" a character for indulging in behavior incompatible with the Production Code. And Maureen naturally makes a great-looking bomb victim -- barely a mark on her.
The last non-conflict has Mrs. Henderson and Van Damm giving stirring speeches in the street to protest the closing of the Windmill Theater because kill-joy Lord Cromer wants to discourage large crowds while the bombs are falling. Mrs. Henderson shouts that she wants the theater kept open (spoiler) because she discovered that the only naked woman her son ever saw before he died was on a French postcard. Showing naked women to English soldiers is a sacred duty! Laura's argument could be better made for government-sponsored brothels. I mean, does she think the soldiers just want to look at the girls before they die?
Mrs. Henderson Presents spends an hour telling us that the Windmill nudes are Art, only to have Dame Judi assure us that her show is really good old-fashioned pornography. The Windmill was a quaint form of entertainment that can be called charming amid the prevailing Puritanism in England of the day, but I think the movie sends mixed signals. Don't get me wrong, beautiful nudes are lovely but the Windmill adopted nudity out of economic desperation, not to raise cultural standards. And that's okay: As Mrs. Henderson says, the theater's Parisian namesake The Moulin Rouge does the same thing and isn't considered hypocritical. The movie wants it both ways -- aesthetics and adolescent jokes about mice loose on the stage.
As such, Mrs. Henderson fits in well with The Full Monty and Calendar Girls, films forming a splinter genre that spices up otherwise un-commercial stories with "tasteful" nudity so as to allow actors to have some naughty fun. It's interesting that in every case there's an economic incentive ... no matter what the motive, nude bodies are being presented as a consumer commodity. The difference between these films and the rest of our crass commercial world is that the cute Mrs. Henderson is marketed to "nice" audiences, even though it has a glimpse or two of full-frontal male nudity. Mother or grandmother would have to be really closed-minded to take offense.
Director Stephen Frears (The Grifters) gives Mrs. Henderson Presents a high polish, but the exemplary production values are what put the show over the top. Lighting, camerawork, costumes and settings are superb. The glossy animated title sequence isn't as amusing as it wants to be, but the rest of the movie is indeed a pleasure to look at.
Some of the special effects are impressive as well. That familiar big square in the "heart of London" (Piccadilly Circus?) is recreated in excellent digital composites, adding greatly to the period atmospherics. Up on the roof of the Windmill is where the effects trouble starts, at least in the DVD version of the film. Dench and Hoskins have several scenes on the rooftop where they watch the bombings or dance, digitally matted into an overview of the London skyline. At least on this DVD, the matted buildings look terrible, like featureless cutouts, as if they were meant to be much darker. Contrast lines form around the actors and the 'actual set' part of the rooftop, making the whole thing look like an old-fashioned temp matte before the real matte artwork is painted.
The Weinstein Company's DVD of Mrs. Henderson Presents is an attractive enhanced transfer with beautiful color and warm skin tones. It has English and Spanish subtitles and is Closed-Captioned. The songs and music selections for the stage performances are exemplary, and add enormously to the enjoyment of the movie.
A multi-part featurette docu interviewing the key cast members is split between EPK promotional content and more interesting testimonials. It starts off well with a publicity party to celebrate a number of original Windmill girls. All of them look spry and frisky, even one in her 90s ... as Hoskins says, in his true Cockney accent, they're ready to "strip off" even now!
Stephen Frears provides a leisurely and often sparse commentary. After hearing more empty space than comment, Savant skipped through the chapters ... and found that Frears wasn't speaking in the first 30 seconds of most of them. He explains the frankly meaningless opening title card ("Inspired by true events ...") by saying that the creatives on the film were split between making it realistic or setting it all in a stylized musical world, like an American MGM musical. I don't see how the film could possibly work without being given the realistic sheen it has now.
On a final note, I really like Weinstein's placement of the corporate disclaimer for the commentary behind the appropriate menu selection, instead of being at the head of the disc. Sitting through disclaimers, promos, FBI threats and MPPA brainwashing is not my idea of spending quality time with a movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mrs. Henderson Presents rates: