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Bob Hoskins and Judi Dench
stare down the Hollywood Foreign
Press, when their movie loses to
Walk the Line. (This caption will
be changed if things go differently
Monday night).

Mrs. Henderson Presents
Review written by: Alex Sandell

Mrs. Henderson Presents isn't half as fun as it wants to be, and isn't half good, half of the time it's trying to be fun.  From the generic overhead opening shot of a funeral (seriously, how many movies have to start that way?), to the defiant, patriotic closing number, the movie never fully breaks free from its "been there, done that" vibe. 

The film begins with Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) dealing with widowhood after losing her husband (hence the opening funeral scene).  Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow), a more experienced widow, helps her through, and suggests to Laura that "now she can buy things."  Mrs. Henderson takes her friend's advice and buys a theatre. 

Never having run a theatre, she hires Vivian Van Damn (Bob Hoskins) to run the day-to-day production.  He comes up with the idea of running "non-stop" shows.  "Instead of two a day," he tells her (I'm paraphrasing this quote, as I will be all others in this critique), "we can do five a day, back to back.  It's never been done in England before!"  She goes for the idea and casting begins. 

The Windmill Theatre is up and running within a matter of days (at least it appears that way) and starts out a roaring success.  But before they can enjoy the fruits of their labor (or, in this case, "labour"), other theatres are copying the "non-stop" show idea, and the Windmill Theatre looks to be going under.  Mrs. Henderson suggests that they aren't being bold enough.  They need to try something different.  What about taking off the women's clothes, like they do at "the Moulin Rouge" in France? 

Through connections her husband had with Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest -- hilarious, as always), Mrs. Henderson convinces the Lord to allow this nudity, but only if the women are completely still, "Like in a museum."  The idea seems an impossibility, but Mrs. Henderson knows that it is the best she's going to get out of the man, after he nearly has a heart-attack over hearing her use the word "pussy."

The show is staged beautifully, with fully nude women.  Although they don't move, the lighting and effects truly bring these ladies to life.  And what wonderful breasts they have.  A stage full of T&A has everyone excited, including the stuffy Lord Henderson, who is the first one to clap at the end of the number. 

In the meantime, Mrs. Henderson is pursuing Mr. Van Damn, again due to her friend's advice of money always replacing age (Mrs. Henderson has both).  This leads to the worst part of the movie and, oddly enough, the section they choose to advertise.  As Lady Conway mentions, "Girls in their teens are much the same as women in their eighth decade." 

The "old person acting like a goofy teenager" thing gets old (no pun intended) fast, and had me nearly giving this movie a negative review (I even sketched down the rough form of a line I planned to use, "Softcore porn for the elderly -- nothing left for the rest of us.")  Hoskins and Dench don't have the fireworks between them that they think they do, and this entire section of film seems manufactured and from out of no where. 

The movie changes tone and picks up when Adolf Hitler enters (say what you will about the man -- he knew how to make an entrance).  Mrs. Henderson lost her son Alec in the First World War.  He was only 21 years old.  That was to be "The war to end all wars."  So why is this fascist nut suddenly dropping bombs on England?

Rather than shut down the Windmill Theatre, it is used as a makeshift bomb shelter -- with bare boobs and buttocks.  The theatre is located underground, so it is safer than most places people could congregate.  Lord Cromer suggests people not congregate at all, but Mrs. Henderson quickly reminds him that people can be "overly-cautious" in times like this (for a recent example, see The USA PATRIOT Act). 

The theatre becomes a home for the troops, before they're sent to the front.  Obviously, with exposed titties galore, they love the place.  If the real thing (this film is "inspired by true events") was staged half as well as director Stephen Frears & Co.'s version, it's easy to see why this would be like a home away from home, only with a handful of the hottest ladies around -- in the buff. 

The film drops some of the ridiculous flirting between Henderson and Van Damn and settles in on the theme of entertainment during times of war.  You learn more about the ladies.  You hear more about the soldiers.  There is a far more serious tone to the second half, and it's more than welcome. 

Still, the show must go on, and on it goes!  It gets bigger, brighter -- it has troops crying, before they wildly applaud a topless lady or three.  The second half is also where we get to learn more about the well-endowed star of the theatre, Maureen (Kelly Reilly). 

What a beautiful lady, and what a wonderful performance Reilly gives as Maureen.  It's simultaneously strong and vulnerable.  To be honest, I was much more interested in her story than I was in the cumbersome banter between Henderson and Van Damn. 

All of the girls are charming in the film -- and I'm not just saying that because they were willing to show their "bits and pieces" on screen (although that didn't hurt).  You really feel the camaraderie between the ladies of the Windmill Theatre.  You also can't help but admire their courage.  The first time they're on stage as the air raid sirens go off, they manage to stand still and stay in the show, even though tears are running down their faces. 

They are scared, but they know they have it good in the Windmill Theatre.  One of them mentions how surprising it is to find the safest place to be during a war is standing naked on a stage in front of an audience.

With exception for a couple small surprises, the film goes pretty much in the direction you expect it would.  But that second half is more powerful than it deserves to be, thanks primarily to the talent involved.  Screenwriter Martin Sherman and director Stephen Frears aptly juggle comedy, titillation and tragedy without the three ever clashing in an inappropriate manner, or feeling out of place. 

In the end, the movie is a reminder of how important art -- more especially controversial art -- can be in a time of war.  How it should not be put on a shelf, but embraced.  "You can take these young soldier's lives," Judi Dench says in a speech that comes off as Oscar-baiting, but is entertaining, nonetheless, "But before you do, don't take their joy." 


There's nothing this movie critic likes more than discussing movies with fellow film fanatics. He's even getting better at replying. Agree? Disagree? Doesn't matter. Let's talk film! Email Alex!

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