MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS
When Mrs Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) is widowed in 1937, she's soon bored - until she sees an old London theatre that's for sale, in Old Windmill Street. She buys it and hires Vivan Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to run it for her, as a music hall venue, featuring tastefully choreographed nude girls. Things go well, despite their personality clash, and when World War II breaks out a couple of years later, The Windmill remains open even through the air raids, much to the appreciation of the soldiers on leave from the front. Threatened with closure by the authorities, Mrs Henderson steps up on a soap box and defends her much loved hobby.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's been 20 years since Stephen Frears made My Beautiful Laundrette and pinned his name onto the cinematic notice board. It's stayed there ever since, with films as robust as Prick Up Your Ears, Sammie and Rosie Get Laid, Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity and latterly, Dirty Pretty Things. And now Mrs Henderson Presents. As with Dangerous Liaisons, this is a period setting, although both films sparkle with relevance and a filmmaking style that flaunts its contemporary sensibilities.
Judi Dench is partly responsible for this, her august gravitas tinged with mischief a teenager would be proud of. Her Mrs Henderson is quite proper, but she has an earthy and pragmatic inner core which keeps her going. And which comes in handy when circumstances demand, such as the threat by the Home Secretary to close her theatre during the war, fearing it attracts 'congestion' during the bombing raids. Mrs Henderson stands on a box in the crowd and gives a speech that ends with the rudest word she has ever used: f....
But by then she's won us over anyway, and the basic story has delighted our sense of wonder. It's a great story: a newly widowed wealthy 70 year old buys an abandoned London theatre and puts on variety shows featuring naked women. And this in 1937.
The truth of it helps, too, and the lack of a Hollywood size budget is turned into a stylistic advantage, like the set for Piccadilly Circus, which evokes the place perfectly, even though it looks a bit stagey.
Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins bitch and moan at each other in the amusing yet honestly observed thrust and parry born of a mixture of irritation, admiration and even love.
Review by Louise Keller:
A richly satisfying film about a wealthy widow's foray into vaudeville, Mrs Henderson Presents is funny, touching and involving. Filled with delicious lines and intricate relationships, director Stephen Frears guides this British period piece set just before the outbreak of World War II as smoothly as a ripe piece of French brie is washed down by a good glass of red wine.
Performances are spot on, with Judi Dench delighting in her every moment as the child-like elderly dame with the contagious sense of fun and daring, countered by Bob Hoskins as the down-to-earth theatre manager. They throw barbs at each other non-stop throughout their prickly relationship, yet always retain the formality of calling each other Mrs Henderson and Mr Van Damm (or Mr Damm Van). They are like an old married couple who irritate each other constantly, but are inexplicably drawn to one another. It is this push-me pull-me relationship that is the film's gold nugget. Kelly Reilly makes an indelible mark as the blonde with the perfect bosom who finds baring her body is a remedy to her aversion for intimacy.
Mrs Henderson buys the Windmill Theatre as a spoilt child would a toy. There's unashamed glee in her voice, when she tells her friend they are about to audition talent for their first show. 'We say stick around or buzz off,' she smiles. Her notion to break boundaries and use nudity in the shows is presented so innocently, and she bosses Christopher Guest's Lord Chamberlain around as if he were a naughty boy. The casting process ('we need British nipples') is highly amusing as are the unorthodox methods used to entice inexperienced showgirls into displaying their bodies for 'art'.
The stakes suddenly become higher as World War II erupts and when frivolity turns the corner, our laughter quickly changes to tears. Our emotions are precariously balanced on the edge as bombs fall and the threat to close the theatre is real. Mrs Henderson Presents is one of those genuinely uplifting films that will add a skip to your step. The fact that it's based on a true story also adds to the experience.
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STEPHEN FREARS INTERVIEW
MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS (M)
CAST: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Kelly Reilly, Thelma Barlow, Christopher Guest
PRODUCER: Laurie Borg, Norma Heyman
DIRECTOR: Stephen Frears
SCRIPT: Martin Sherman
EDITOR: Lucia Zucchetti
MUSIC: George Fenton
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2005 (special advance screenings December 16, 17, 18)