Mrs. Henderson Presents is notable for accomplishing a feat rarely seen on screen in the last 15 years. It showcases Judi Dench in a role where she doesn't constantly look like a constipated woman sucking a lemon. Oh sure, she still gets that trademarked snippy, frowning, squeezing-the-cheeks expression a few times, but she also manages to have fun and even giggles at one point. I went through rather the same interplay of emotions while watching this movie on DVD. There were times when the energy and ebullience of the lighthearted music hall numbers had me happily tapping my toes and going along with the filmmakers. Then they would throw in a piece of heavy-handed dramatic conflict or have a character launch into a "significant" monologue and the fantasy world would come crashing back down into a harsh realization of people reading lines from a script.
The story is one of those "inspired by true events" things, reinforced by the final disclaimer in the credits that characters and events were heavily fictionalized and should not be taken to represent true historical people or situations.
Mrs. Henderson finds herself suddenly widowed at the start of the film and starts wondering what a moneyed, privileged dowager is supposed to do to amuse herself in 1937. In short order, she finds herself buying an old theater, hiring Bob Hoskins to be the artistic manager and creator of a new musical revue, and opening the doors to a waiting public.
One thing leads to another and suddenly Mrs. Henderson announces that she wants to present her revue with naked women on stage (emulating the Moulin Rouge shows in Paris). The rest of the drama stems from the tensions involved in trying such a daring theatrical idea in stodgy old England. Then there is the small matter of events that take us into the early years of WWII, when London was a rather tenuous place to live, much less attempt to put on a glorified girlie show.
Hoskins and Dench perform a running Battling Bickersons routine through the film, where they argue while secretly respecting and liking each other. The script manages to mix in the saucy female friend of the leading lady (a role perfected by Helen Broderick in films of the 30s such as Swing Time and Top Hat), wartime romance, family secrets, WWII newsreels, death, patriotism, and a lot of really nice period music. Oh yes, and Christopher Guest is along for the ride in a top hat and an on-again-off-again British accent.
The soundtrack and the on-screen musical numbers are the most enjoyable things about the movie. Well, at least for me, but I'm a complete sap for the music of the war years and just before, so they had a willing audience here. There are a few cute and witty gag lines delivered with appropriate verve and eye-twinkling. The historical period sense felt right and there are some gorgeous period automobiles on display.
On the negative side we have one spit take, one cliché moment where an audience sits in silence until one person claps, followed by two more, then more, until a thunderous swell emerges; some really cheesy matte painting scenes; a contrived and extraneous plot concentration on a minor character that pulls focus from the main story; and some real clunkers of (as one reviewer nicely put it) "for your consideration" speeches by the leads.
There are plenty of female breasts on display, but it is all done in an "artistic" and non-sexual context. Prurient interests will be better served elsewhere. Ladies, you get one brief consolation shot of male full-frontal for balance.
I don't think this film will stick with me. It boils down to another in the long line of studio movies (it's a BBC Films production) that is neither notably good nor maddeningly bad. Just something to pass a little time, make a short theatrical run, pick up some more money on the home video market, and quietly disappear into the IMDB archives.
Parents: The main cautions are obvious from the nudity advisories above. There are also a few swear words (mainly slang terms for female anatomical features, but the F-bomb does make an appearance). No drugs, sex, or violence, although people are shown to have died in the German bombings of London.
Spoiler Alert! The following gives away a revealed plot point in the movie. Do not read if you wish to preserve the surprise factor.
Was anybody else uncomfortable with the sincerity evinced in Mrs. Henderson's big teary speech about her son and her reasons for opening the theater and showing nude women? When she came up with the idea for buying the theater, Britain was still steadfastly maintaining a non-involvement policy in German affairs. When she started showing nude women, there were no hordes of servicemen needing to catch a glimpse of breasts before going off to potentially die. It was a society show at first, until the war came along. Either Mrs. Henderson was remarkably prescient and a brilliant long-range planner or she was spinning a revisionist history on the spot in the street in order to callously take advantage of wartime sentiment and patriotism. Not very nice.