Mrs. Henderson Presents is a sad and pathetic tale. If it had been planned that way, it might have been a pointed, touching film. But instead it seems to fatally misjudge its power as a period comedy/drama.
Raise the Curtain
R for nudity, brief language
Mrs. Henderson (Judi Dench) is a recent widow. She’s a classist and a racist, some of which is excused by her “tough old bird” persona. She doesn’t know what to do with her late husband’s money, but a friend schools her in the unwritten rules of widowhood and encourages her to find a hobby and do some shopping.
Instead of jewelry, Mrs. Henderson buys a run-down theater. She doesn’t know the first thing about running a song-and-dance show, so she hires Mr. Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), whom she assumes is a Jew, and therefore a skilled manager of entertainments. Van Damm realizes who he’s up against and, before accepting the job, manages to demand a few concessions, including complete creative control.
Together, they open The Windmill on London’s West Side, the first non-stop revue in the country. Their success fades as quickly as it came. All the other theaters start copying their success and stealing their customers. So Mrs. Henderson ups the ante. The Windmill’s dancing girls will now be totally nude. She has to grease some palms in the government, notably Christopher Guest playing it completely straight as Lord Cromer. But with a few compromises (the nudes cannot move, they must be in tableau), they get their show.
It’s a promising setup for a period comedy, particularly with Dench, Guest, and Hoskins in the cast. It could easily be a spot of naughty fun in stodgy old Britain. It seems like the perfect tweaking of manners. But what Mrs. Henderson Presents fails to do is to rise above the sad tawdriness of offering a peep show to horny young men.
Based loosely on the real Mrs. Henderson, the movie tries to find some nobility in its little story about T&A. And while Dame Judi Dench gives an impassioned speech about young men dying in war without having seen a real woman, it all boils down to horny lads and exploited lasses. There simply isn’t any nobility there; it’s all base.
The movie makes a valiant effort at respectability, particularly in the casting. Dench brings all the weight of her previous roles and her own commanding personality. Hoskins realizes who he’s sharing the screen with and manages to hold his own (except in his own embarrassing nude scene). The costumes, sets, and historical setting seem to be a sly way to try to add some weight to the story.
But even in its finest hour, the movie just seems like a sad little movie about the guilty thrill of ogling nudity.