Mrs. Henderson Presents

It's always fun to watch Dame Judi Dench in movies, but especially so when she picks a choice role. Recent efforts have cast her as an elderly lady with a schoolgirl crush on a young man (Ladies in Lavender) and an imperious Englishwoman (Pride & Prejudice). Role like the latter are her strong point - she has a great way of coming off as caustic and domineering. What people do not seem to recognize is that she also has good comic timing, something seldom seen in her roles. It takes a small movie like Mrs. Henderson Presents to bring those two elements together. As Mrs. Laura Henderson, Dench can be incredibly dismissive and terse, but nobody is sure if this is because she is domineering or if she's plain daffy. This is a movie that clearly sets out to entertain its audience, and it funnier than one would expect. The poignant moments near the end also work without coming across as false.

Henderson, a recent widow, decides to invest in renovating the Windmill Theater. She has a lot of time, and a lot of money, and is looking for something to amuse her. She hires Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins, Stay, Son of the Mask) to handle most of the duties, and the two instantly bicker like an old married couple. Much of the fun of Mrs. Henderson Presents comes from the quick back-and-forth that Dench and Hoskins have with each other. They argue over everything, yet their arguments are sometimes meaningless. It looks like they detest each other, but they really don't. They are arguing sometimes just to argue. And the two actors easily step into their roles as the slightly mad rich woman and the exasperated businessman. In actuality, Henderson is rather shrewd. She doesn't care about losing money, but knows how to make it. She also knows how to play up Van Damm's ego and how to get exactly what she wants.

Mrs. Henderson Presents is based on actual events in London just before the start of World War II. It was written by Martin Sherman (Callas Forever, Bent) based off an idea by David Rose and Kathy Rose. Henderson comes up with the notion of presenting naked women on stage, both as a moral booster and something to differentiate her theater from the legions of others. Van Damm reluctantly agrees, as does Lord Cromer (an amusing Christopher Guest, A Mighty Wind, Best in Show). As expected, the decision is wildly popular, hampered only by the fact that the nude (not naked) women cannot move.

As World War II makes its way closer to London, director Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, Liam) shifts the tone in a subtle manner, bringing in some more somber emotions without ruining the lighthearted comedic tone of the film. Henderson lost her only son in World War One. She knows what the effects of war are, and she knows why it is important that her theater stay open (the exact reason is a bit corny). This part of the film brings some more substance to the Henderson character. Not only is she a smart person, but she can also be serious when the need arises, and obviously thinks about others beside herself. Kelly Reilly (Pride & Prejudice, L'Auberge Espagnole) also does nice job as Maureen, the main star of Henderson's theater. Like Henderson, Maureen has more substance to her character than the main lady that gets naked.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 43 minutes, Rated R for nudity and brief language.

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