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MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Kelly Reilly, Christopher Guest
Director: Stephen Frears
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: The Weinstein Company
Features: Director commentary, Making-of featurette, trailer, photo gallery
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: April 18, 2006

"Paris is just filled with naked women wearing bananas and dare I say it making everyone else go bananas in return!"

Film ***

Right from its animated Monty Python-esque opening credits sequence, we know that Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) will be something completely different.  Inspired by actual events, this film is the story of a wealthy widow who would create England's first-ever nudie revue show.  Such endeavors are not typically the domain of proper English ladies, but the willful Mrs. Henderson is hardly a conventional spirit.

Mrs. Henderson Presents opens in 1937 with the funeral rites of a Mr. Henderson, a man formerly of some esteem and personal worth.  His unfortunate, indeed rather inconvenient, death is simply a gesture of poor consideration, for in dying, Mr. Henderson leaves behind a lonely if flighty wife, Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), with little appreciation for how best to occupy her time.  Having insufficient social engagements to wile away her indeterminately long days now, the widow Henderson is soon beside herself with boredom.

An unimaginative woman might take to embroidery.  Ladies' clubs typically sponsor bridge marathons, too.  Polite luncheons or continental sherry parties might likewise offer some semblance of structure to an otherwise dull existence.  But, the keener mind might chose instead to explore new avenues of human interest.  An old widow, particularly if she was rich, might discover no lack in available younger suitors, comfortable wealth being a most effective panacea for any apparent diminishment of physical beauty.  No hindrance would bar such a widow either from complete freedom to shop and purchase material objects at will.

Mrs. Henderson, being a particularly frivolous and spontaneous sort, is inspired (or strangely possessed) to buy an abandoned West End theatre.  Her grand aspiration is to gut the seedy thing and to transform it into a sparkling vaudeville hall.  Thus from the ashes and dust of one theatre arises another, London's soon-to-be legendary Windmill Theatre!

Alas, Mrs. Henderson's various talents do not extend to the art of running a theatre.  For that tedious task, she hires Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), a stocky man with gumption and the passion to stir things up.  Van Damm's best qualification, at least in Mrs. Henderson's eyes, is that he smokes a fat cigar, a right and proper custom for any right and proper manager.  Such a manly habit serves to rekindle the dying embers of passion in the old widow woman's heart!

The Windmill Theatre's first production, Revuedeville, is Van Damm's original idea - a non-stop revue running continuously throughout the day.  It is an innovative hook that steadily pulls in the audiences, and the future seems bright for the Windmill Theatre...until other theatres about town begin to copy this successful format.  With profits gradually dwindling, Mrs. Henderson comes up with an extraordinary idea of her own - why not present nude girls in the show?

Perhaps continental revues such as the Folies-Begere in Paris customarily may resort to such spectacles and displays of bare flesh, but England could never allow such a thing on its stage.  Or could it?  Mrs. Henderson appeals to Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) of Her Majesty's government for permission to run her revised show.  After some amusing persuasion, her request is granted...with the caveat that the girls must remain utterly motionless on-stage and must present as much erotic appeal as a museum painting or a Greek statue.  They would be, in a sense, living statues, the tableaux vivants.

Mrs. Henderson Presents might be considered somewhat of a backstage musical.  There are numerous songs and performances, although most are not presented in their entirety.  There are the usual "barbaric pagan rituals" otherwise known as auditions.  No music hall would be complete with a chorus line, either, in this case "the Millerettes," named by Van Damm in honor of the Windmill Theatre itself.  And then, naturally, there are those famous and fabulous tableaux girls.

The first half of the film follows the general structure of a screwball comedy.  Mrs. Henderson, despite her better judgment, finds herself falling like a silly school girl for the gruff Van Damm.  However, it would be unseemly for societal ladies to fawn over grown men, so Mrs. Henderson resorts to sneaking about her own theatre and insinuating herself into Van Damm's business rather like a "delicious, if overripe, Mata Hari."  This humorous oil-and-water relationship between Mrs. Henderson and the eternally-grumpy Van Damm serves up many laughs, although the film takes a darker turn once World War Two begins.  However, it is during this period that the Windmill Theatre will earn its greatest claim to fame as the only London vaudeville hall never to close, even during the Battle of Britain.

In general, the performances in this film are quite good.  Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins are sublime, with Dench earning a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  Kelly Reilly, as one of the tableaux girls, makes a solid impression and has a bright future in film.  Especially entertaining is Will Young, a former Pop Idol star who portrays Bertie, the spotlight singer of the Windmill Theatre; he possesses a wonderful vocal style that harkens back to the olden days of the Hollywood musical.

Despite its potentially lurid subject, Mrs. Henderson Presents is a very tastefully presented film.  There is an old-fashioned sentimentality about it that will be quite appealing for lovers of the old-style screwball comedies and musicals.  Goody-goody indeed!

BONUS TRIVIA:  Mrs. Henderson Presents was the second film from 2005 featuring both Judi Dench and Kelly Reilly.  The other film was Pride and Prejudice.

Video ***

The film makes use of occasional war footage which is scratched, grainy, and washed-out, but these traits are to be expected for archival footage.  Some of the blue-screen effects for the Battle of Britain are a bit obvious, but otherwise the presentation of this film on DVD is very good.  Colors are sharp and defined, grain is minimal, and flesh tones are accurate.

Audio ****

The film opens with an overture played behind the opening credits.  However, I am a tad disappointed that the DVD chapter marks do not correspond with the musical numbers themselves, as there are quite a number of wonderful songs here, including several forgotten standards.  Mild nudity aside, this film would be perfectly at place among any collection of war-era MGM musicals.  Will Young provides a tender rendition of "All the Things You Are" that alone is worth the price of admission.

The audio track is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1, which is used to full effect during the air raid sequences and musical numbers.

Features **

"We Never Closed."

The DVD opens with previews for The Libertine (with Johnny Depp) and the transgender comedy Transamerica (with an Oscar-nominated performance by Felicity Hoffman).

The first bonus feature is a somewhat lethargic commentary by director Stephen Frears.  He speaks up only occasionally and sounds as though he could have benefited from some caffeine while recording this commentary.

A short "Making-of" featurette (24 min.) offers the actors and director a chance to talk about the real-life Laura Henderson whose theater was the inspiration for this movie.  Christopher Guest even gives us a sample of typical British dry wit.  Also on hand are several of the original Windmill girls, older now perhaps but still young at heart.  Production montages can be seen of the recreation of the Windmill Theatre's interiors and various dance rehearsals.

Lastly, there is a trailer and a gallery with twenty-four production photos.  Too bad the opportunity is missed to present some of the movie's musical numbers in a more complete form.

Summary:

Mrs. Henderson Presents is a carefree, if mildly saucy, throwback to the Hollywood musicals of yesteryear.  It's a delight and good for many laughs.

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