Written by Martin Sherman
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins and Kelly Reilly
The credits roll and instantly MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS is insufferable. A tiresome montage of animation and archival footage of monkeys, cherubs and ladies in suggestive situations introduces the film’s players as a flat jazz score attempts to liven the mood and pick up the pace. I felt I might be doomed to sit through an unexpectedly tacky offering from the director of groundbreaking fare like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDERETTE and the writer of the gut wrenching BENT. I began to breathe easy shortly after as Judi Dench took to the screen as Laura Henderson. As a recently widowed lady of England’s high society, Dench delivers a sharp, snappy performance that had me jerking out embarrassingly loud fits of laughter, while she managed to maintain the tenderness and hope of a woman looking for meaning in a life without her great loves, her husband and her son who died in the first World War. At a friend’s suggestion, she takes up a hobby to pass the time after her husband dies and after passing herself on embroidery and charity work, she settles on a project that is nothing short of extravagant, and therefore nothing short of fitting for Mrs. Henderson; she buys a theatre in London’s West End. Though the venture starts out promising, the fickle patrons quickly turn away and Mrs. Henderson decides to do what any proper lady would; she suggests putting naked girls on the stage.
The nature of the theatre can be one of spontaneity and surprise, especially for those who have no idea what they’ve signed on for. Though this energizes the theatre experience both in the audience and backstage, it does not make for a solid film. Sherman’s script is without any consistent story arch, leaving the viewer wondering where this is all going and knowing that the answer is really nowhere. The only constant is the theatre itself and subplots run rampant in these wings and dressing rooms. Much like the “Revuedeville” show that runs all day at the Windmill theatre, these trivial plots arise and resolve themselves before making way for the next. There is expected banter and emotional tension between Mrs. Henderson and her theatre manager, Mr. Van Damme (Bob Hoskins); there is the inevitable controversy over having naked girls on stage; there is even a rising star with a frozen heart who manages to thaw it out in time to fall for a soldier, get pregnant and lose him. The only thing any of these situations has in common is that they all take place in the Windmill Theatre. And all that manages to save this disconnected story from feeling like a mismatched chorus line are the lively, exuberant performances from all the players. They wear their awareness of being naughty very well and parlay it into an amusing and jubilant show, while forming the foundation of a family, like only the theatre can, that the audience both roots and hopes for in between their hollers.
In order for the naked ladies to take the stage, they must remain perfectly still, like works of art in a museum. While naturally hesitant at first, the ladies shed their garb under the guidance of Mr. Van Damme. After all, this is England in 1937. Such things were just not done. Mr. Van Damme asks his girls, and throws the question out at any prudes in the audience as well, “Why do you think God gave you your bits and pieces? So you could be ashamed of them?” He goes on to tell them all that they are works of art. And while he plays the occasional prank that forces the ladies to move on stage when they are not allowed to, he does treat them with the respect and admiration any work of art deserves. The ladies are never exploited and are always incorporated into the acts like set pieces to enhance the song being sung or the dance being danced. It is always about the build up and not about the pay off. In other words, it is the difference between baring your bosom and baring your breast. And while the promise of naked girls may get the people in the seats, it is the show itself they leave with. Perhaps the same can be said of the experience for some of the folks I saw this film with.
MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS is inspired by true events and reality must at one point interrupt the fun and games. A few years in to the Windmill’s run, Germany begins bombing England. An overwhelming feeling of helplessness falls on the theatre and Frears poses another question to his audience. What is the point of some good, clean fun in troubled times? Though Frears’ decision to cut back and forth between archival war footage of bombings and fighter planes and the impact of these images on the players and patrons of Mrs. Henderson’s theatre is awkward at best, it still manages to make a point we all know well even more relevant. The show must go on. Why? Because there must be hope that a life we all know and love will return after the fear and we will feel safe once again. In a simple, and dare I say rather naked moment, one “Revuedeville” star asks, “Who’d ever dreamed that standing on a stage without any clothes on would feel like the safest place to be?” Any revue is bound to have elements that don’t work or take you out of the moment but it’s moments like this and many other hilarious ones that make it all worthwhile and catch you off guard, as if you were caught unexpectedly with your pants down.