Mrs. Henderson Presents (United Kingdom, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For all those who think movies don't have enough naked female flesh, welcome to Mrs. Henderson Presents. It would have been interesting to witness the MPAA's deliberations about this film. There's some violence, but not much. There's no sex or sex-related situations. There's only one instance of notable profanity (a single f-word), but there's a lot of "artistic" nudity. Breasts. Buns. Pubic hair. Even a penis or two (including one belonging to Bob Hoskins). This should be a PG-13 movie - there's nothing salacious or erotic about the naked women. It's all very tasteful. But the MPAA has done what they always do upon seeing a nipple - head for the R-rated hills.

Ironically, one of the subjects tackled by Mrs. Henderson Presents is the ridiculous nature of governmental objections to public nudity. The film argues its case persuasively on three grounds: the artistic merit of the female form, the fact that we shouldn't be hiding what God gave us, and the way the fear of nudity has forced many young men "underground" in their natural desire to view the female form. Men will always seek to glimpse naked women, argues director Stephen Frears, so why turn this into something dirty and clandestine? Celebrate the female form; don't hide it.

The film, Frears' first since 2002's Dirty Pretty Things, opens in London between the two world wars. It continues into the blitz, giving us a good perspective of the city before and during World War II. Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) is a rich, recently widowed aristocrat. She is bored with widowhood, so a friend offers her some advice. She can try embroidery (which she's no good at), take a lover (she believes she's too old), or buy whatever she wants. The last option appeals to her, so she purchases the run-down West End showplace, the Windmill Theater, and decides to renovate it. She wants to present a revue, but that's where the inspiration ends. To handle the production, she hires Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), a prickly sort of man who demands complete creative control. He and Laura are immediately at odds, but the result of their collaboration is "Revudeville," an immediate success. However, after getting off to a smashing start, the show sputters. That's when Mrs. Henderson comes up with a revolutionary idea to boost business - take a page from the French and make the showgirls nude. The Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest), who must okay this sort of thing, agrees, but with one proviso: when the girls are naked, they must remain unmoving.

The film's haphazard and uneven structure is offset by its effective mixing of three genres: comedy, drama, and musical. Mrs. Henderson Presents is at times funny, at times poignant, and at times uplifting. And it avoids a common pitfall for movies focused on stage shows: it does not turn the lives of the performers into soap operas. Only in the case of one girl are we given a back-story, and, even in this situation, there is limited development. 75% of the film centers on the evolution of the stage show (including showing us numerous full production numbers). The other 25% delves into Mrs. Henderson's life, giving Judi Dench an opportunity to shine. Like Dench, Bob Hoskins is in fine form. The two veteran actors play off one another as only seasoned thespians can - sit back and watch the sparks fly. Relative newcomer Kelly Reilly, as Maureen, impresses. And Christopher Guest is dryly funny in a small role.

Frears is one of the most versatile directors working today, and his resume speaks for itself. Mrs. Henderson Presents represent another success for the English-born filmmaker. It offers a feel-good experience, but without the heavy dose of schmaltz that often accompanies such a production. It comes highly recommended and is right at home in the company of other end-of-the-year "prestige" pictures. It is also one of the first titles to bear the standard of the newly-formed "Weinstein Company."

Mrs. Henderson Presents (United Kingdom, 2005)

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: Judi Dench, Bob Hoskins, Kelly Reilly, Will Young, Thelma Barlow, Christopher Guest
Screenplay: Martin Sherman
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Music: George Fenton
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1