'Mrs. Henderson Presents' a good show

The sparring between Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in 'Mrs. Henderson Presents' reveals both actors at their best.

By
February 6, 2006 08:00
3 minute read.
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mrs henderson film 88 29. (photo credit: )

 
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MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS - *** Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by David Rose, Kathy Rose and Martin Sherman. Hebrew title: Geveret Henderson Geah Latzig. 103 minutes. In English, with Hebrew titles. With Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Will Young, Kelly Reilly, Thelma Barlow, Christopher Guest, Shona McWilliams, Camille O‚Sullivan, Doraly Rosen, Sarah Solemani, Natalia Tena Mrs. Henderson Presents is basically one of those wacky widow movies and it's a good one. There is a whole sub-genre of (mostly British) movies about strait-laced widows who break out after their husbands‚ deaths by doing something a little risque'. Usually, they have an affair with a younger or much younger man (think of Harold and Maude, or, more recently, The Mother) but sometimes it's a little more involved. For example, Saving Grace stars Brenda Blethyn as a widow who grows and sells marijuana to pay the taxes on her late husband's estate (a storyline echoed in the recent television series, Weeds). The variation on this theme in Mrs. Henderson, is that a wealthy, upper-class widow (Judi Dench) impulsively buys a London theater and then starts producing nude (but tasteful) revues in the late Thirties. Mid-movie, though, as World War II breaks out and the blitz begins, there is an abrupt change in tone. Suddenly, the revue is not just a life-affirming lark for Mrs. Henderson, but a blow for freedom against the horrors of war. Dench and her co-star, Bob Hoskins, who plays the streetwise producer who works for her, manage to carry off this shift in mood gracefully. Even when the script becomes a touch preachy and artificial, they are so wonderful together that the fun never stops. The movie is based on a true story of the Windmill Theater. Apparently, some of the surviving nude dancers were advisers on the movie and it is accurate in many details. But the truth behind the film is not terribly important. What Mrs. Henderson is really about is watching the sparring between Dench, as the uptight, imperious widow used to getting her way, and Hoskins, as producer Vivian Van Damm, a Dutch Jew who is there to take her down a peg. It's the same dynamic that was so enjoyable in the Hepburn-Tracy comedies. Although at first she may come off as an intolerant bitch (who makes a few cutting remarks about Van Damm's background), soon the glorious humanity she must have hidden within her in order for the film to work asserts itself, and the two adversaries bond as London burns. It seems improbable that she would suggest that they begin featuring nude dancers, but later, a noble motivation for this choice is revealed in the speech that clearly won her the Oscar nomination, made after the stodgy authorities close down the revue for indecency. Mrs. Henderson gradually becomes more rounded as a character when we learn that her only son was killed in World War I and that his loss is what defines her life. The filmmakers have attempted to flesh out this rather slight story with a subplot about one of the dancers, Maureen (Kelly Reilly, who also co-stars in the new version of Pride and Prejudice). Maureen, like all the other nude dancers, is a blushing English rose rather than a hardened professional stripper and she finds herself falling for a young soldier, an affair that Mrs. Henderson promotes with the same energy she promotes the revue. The insistence that the nude dancers are all na ve good girls is crucial because, in order for us to enjoy the film, it's important that the Windmill Theater be utterly sleaze-free. The blushing girls date only fresh-faced soldiers. Pimps and pornographers who might try to prey on the girls simply do not exist. Perhaps this is accurate, but it seems a bit far-fetched. This is only a quibble, however. If you enjoy good acting, then go and see Dench and Hoskins do their thing. I have to admit that Dench's grand dame presence has annoyed me in past films, but here she is extraordinarily graceful and intuitive in her portrayal of a complex, taboo-busting woman. Hoskins is a delight, as always. The movie may be slight and a bit predictable, but these two actors are wonderful to watch.

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