WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: Towards the end of the 1930s, wealthy widow Laura Henderson finds herself with more time and money on her hands than she knows what to do with. On a whim, she buys London’s run-down Windmill Theatre and strikes up a feisty relationship with producer Vivian Van Damm. Mrs Henderson averts box-office disaster by scandalously inaugurating Britain’s first nude revue; but when war arrives, moral outrage is the least of the company’s worries.
London, 1937, and Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) buries her husband, for many years her companion in India and elsewhere. Their son Alec having been killed in the First World War, Mrs Henderson finds single life very lonely; she doesn’t enjoy the hobbies – sitting on committees, doing crochet – suggested by her good friend Margot (Thelma Barlow), and neither, being nearly seventy, is she impressed by Margot’s suggestion that she takes a lover.
One day, she drives past the closed Windmill Theatre and – just like that – decides to buy it. Despite arguing with him from the outset, she hires Jewish producer Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to put on a show, a combination of revue and vaudeville cleverly called ‘revuedeville’, a show that plays throughout the day and becomes so successful it’s universally copied, nearly causing financial ruin. Mrs Henderson, however, decides to do as they do in Paris and instructs Van Damm to assemble a nude revue.
He does as he’s told, cobbling together a troupe of nervous ‘real’ women to accompany singers Jane and Bertie (Camille O’Sullivan and Will Young) and the leggy Millerettes, while Laura sweet-talks Christopher Guest’s Lord Chamberlain Lord Cromer (or ‘Little Tommy’, as she knows him), who objects to the proposed nudity but is as enchanted as the audience when the curtain goes up and the girls are presented in still, arty tableaux. However, Mrs Henderson’s excitement sours when she discovers that Van Damm is spoken for; and the tight little family enjoyed by the girls, including Maureen, Vera and Peggy (Kelly Reilly, Sarah Solemani and Natalia Tena), is disrupted by the bothersome World War II. But isn’t theatre’s motto ‘The Show Must Go On’? If the redoubtable Mrs H has anything to do with it, it certainly will.
Your first question about Mrs Henderson Presents may well be to do with the nudity – is this BBC Films project a period Showgirls? The answer is ‘of course not’, and this is much to the film’s credit. There’s a fair amount of flesh on show, but apart from a hint of harmless sauce it’s all presented as an unerotic, tasteful and artistic enterprise. An equal opportunities one, too – they don’t warn you about Bob Hoskins’ todger on the DVD cover.
But the point is that the controversy of the Windmill’s nude revue is just a backdrop to the bigger story. This film’s not about naked women, or men, or art, at all; it’s about the indomitable spirit of Londoners, rich and poor, during the Blitz. Quite right too, except that’s a history lesson we’re exhausted with already – and while I applaud the total lack of gratuitousness and titillation, there’s a slight feeling of being conned, of being lured into a strip club only for Simon Sharma to deliver a po-faced lecture whilst blocking your view.
I’d have liked to have known more about the girls, where they came from, why they were taking part in the shows: what we get is a two-line summary from ladies who are much of a muchness, apart from Maureen. She gets matchmade by Mrs H, provoking the film’s big crisis which has some emotional impact. Otherwise, the film is much too polite, too British, too damn nice for its own good – for example, I’m not sure all the visiting squaddies were quite as fresh-faced and respectful as they’re portrayed here.
Still, it does contain moments of sly humour, for example the mouse that causes ‘accidental’ movement amongst the nudes, Cromer getting into a flap over ‘The Midlands’, or Laura’s ruses to sneak back into the theatre after she insults Mrs Van Damm and swears never to return.
The film’s not really about the nude revue, then, and the episodic structure of the script, which constructs the story in a blocky, clunky fashion, demonstrates the lack of a dominant theme: Mrs Henderson drives past theatre and looks pensive, Mrs Henderson ‘suddenly’ hits on the idea of a nude review, Van Damm decides to use real British girls and immediately fishes Maureen out of a canal. This bittiness is also reflected in the film’s technical aspects, which are a real mixed bag: London looks wonderful, the cast are dressed and made up to perfection, and the revues are recreated with verve and entirely appropriate showtunes. However, there’s a disconnect between the recreation of period London and scratchy black and white footage of the Blitz, especially when the film later has an obviously fake go at showing the capital ablaze, with Mrs H looking on.
Luckily, most of these issues are swept aside by the superb performance of Dame Judi Dench: she’s haughty, cheeky, occasionally unhinged, but also full of tenderness, her eyes reflecting a lifetime of love and loss for her husband and especially for her son, buried in France (even if I wasn’t totally convinced by her rationale for funding the show). However variable the quality of what’s going on around her, she sparkles, and sparks off Hoskins who – for once – gets to play a slightly posh role, and plays it well. Kelly Reilly doesn’t fare so well in this exalted company, and while Will Young is perfectly fine, he doesn’t exactly demand a career in the movies. Guest isn’t on screen for long, but as usual is very funny.
Assuming you don’t watch Mrs Henderson Presents demanding sex or sauce, you’re likely to find it a handsome film, with humour and a surprisingly strong streak of nobility and decency – its ultimate message could be paraphrased as ‘naked women helped win the war’! The film’s ripe sentimentality does mean that it lacks anything like an edge, and you might hope for more, and more substantial, human tales to accompany Dench’s brilliant performance; in general, though, this show deserves to go on.