As anyone who has ever seen stock footage from World War II knows, living in London during the Blitz was very bad. It was not quite as bad as living in Berlin or Tokyo a few years later, but it was still very bad. Most of the population huddled in cellars and underground stations. A lucky few got to huddle in the Windmill Theater, where they could enjoy vaudeville and naked girls as the Nazis demolished their city from the air. It was, apparently, a very important part of the war effort, or so Mrs. Henderson Presents would have us believe.
Judi Dench has been nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as the title character, who, despite being tempted a couple of times, always remains fully clothed. When the movie opens, Mrs. Henderson has just lost her husband, and we soon find out that her only son was killed in the Great War and is buried in a military graveyard in France.
Unimpressed with the options available to proper aristocratic widows of the time, Mrs. Henderson decides to buy a derelict East End theater and hire crusty stage veteran Vivan Van Damn (Bob Hoskins) to run the place. After early success stemming from their decision to run five shows a day instead of the customary two, the theater falls on hard times. Mrs. Henderson rightly surmises that naked dancing girls will help put asses in seats again, an idea she shares with this film's producers. To get the proper permits, she charms the stodgy Lord Cromer, played by the excellent Christopher Guest, who seems a little relieved to not be directing for a change. The catch is, the girls have to remain still as statues. The reaction of Depression-era Londoners to this new thespian frontier is captured by Henderson's friend Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow), who exclaims, "Nudity! In England!" It is in this middle section of the picture where the prickly chemistry between Hoskins and Dench gets cooking, and for about a half hour the movie's charms shine through. But then the war starts, stock footage of burning London rolls, and an episode of Masterpiece Theatre breaks out.
Mrs. Henderson Presents isn't a bad film, it's just lazily by-the-numbers. Director Stephen Frears never comes close to the highs of past successes like The Grifters and High Fidelity. At age 75, Dench still has plenty of charisma and a wicked sense of comic timing, but you can't win an Oscar by just being funny, so the third act gives us serious speechifying and forced pathos, smothering what could have been a pleasant little vaudeville romp. Like the naked girls on stage, Mrs. Henderson Presents is never allowed to dance.
Mrs. Henderson Presents