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.