When her husband dies suddenly in 1937, Judi Dench's Mrs. Henderson allows herself a private moment to cry out her grief. But before her husband's wake has even ended, Mrs. Henderson concludes that she's bored with widowhood. On a whim, she buys the vacant Windmill Theatre and determines to become a theatrical producer. Pairing up with theatre vet Vivian Van Damm (executive producer Bob Hoskins), Henderson has a grand old time meddling in the musical revues, but when audiences taper off, they'll need a gimmick to draw in the crowds again. On a whip-crack whim, Mrs. Henderson suggests, "Why don't they take off their clothes?" The response? "Nudity, in England?"
Playwright Martin Sherman (Bent) penned the short-attention-span screenplay, inspired by true events and two non-fiction books. For a while, Sherman toys disingenuously with romance between the irritable odd couple of Van Damm and Henderson, but the plotline is dropped unceremoniously. Likewise, Sherman shows little interest in the girls of the revue: only Kelly Reilly's Maureen emerges as a sassy starlet who has hardened herself against male advances. In a hasty episode designed to show Henderson's sensitivity to youth, Mrs. Henderson must re-teach Maureen to love (note how the story rewards them).
Christopher Guest plays Lord Cromer, London's Lord Chamberlain. As Sherman notes, the Lord Chamberlain's job as stage censor has changed little since Elizabethan times. Calling the theatres "a frivolous distraction," a place where it's "dangerous for people to congregate" once the Blitz batters London, Lord Cromer threatens to shut down the revue, which Van Damm proudly promoted with the phrase "We Never Closed."
But Henderson will not be denied—she has a tragic secret motivation for keeping the revue in business. In an eleventh-hour soapbox speech, Dench spells out what little the film has on its mind in a thuddingly sentimental public justification of nudie shows. She has a point, but Henderson's damn-the-torpedos speech is a too-transparent attempt to give the nearly plotless film an emotional climax.
Mrs. Henderson Presents is the diminished return of the English striptease comedies The Full Monty and Calendar Girls (or the feel-good WWII Judi Dench telefilm The Last of the Blonde Bombshells). Stephen Frears miscast himself in the role of director; the film will please the blue-hairs with its naughty little shocks, but it's innocuous and artificial in the extreme.
The rather crucial musical numbers are curiously flat, despite the efforts of music-man George Fenton, costumer Sandy Powell, and at least two choreographers. Perhaps the film's blandness is best represented by featured male crooner Will Young, a "star" anointed by the British TV showcase Pop Idol (ironically, operatic baritone Sir Thomas Allen—who made headlines a couple of years ago by criticizing the sexed-up music biz—pops up as Eric Woodburn).
Hoskins doesn't make much of an impression here, so Dench is Frears' best asset. We're told that "adolescents and women in their eight decade are strikingly similar," and Dench takes the opportunity to give the role all her vivacity. (I enjoyed her delivery of Henderson's appraisal of auditions: "People come in and entertain us, and then we say, 'Stick around' or 'Buzz off'!")
The film could have been delightfully wry in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh, but it's neither swanky nor funny enough to entertain, and Sherman's shallow script never earns its melodramatic turns. Since Mrs. Henderson Presents is one of the first releases from the Weinstein Company, you don't even need to wait for video—you can just wait for Judi Dench's Oscar clip.
[For Groucho's interview with Mrs. Henderson Directs director Stephen Frears, click here.]