I've often considered myself an artist, despite my educational background and current job in the sciences I've always had a bent towards drawing and painting. As with all artists since the first primitive cave drawings, one of the most fascinating subjects is the human form, we see it everyday, but to draw or paint it correctly in proportion is quite a feat. As a form the human body is a masterwork of engineering, compromise and art, it also has the advantage of being aesthetically pleasing to look at. Because if it wasn't, well, there'd be no reproduction, now, would there? It is this aesthetically pleasing look that has long been held in the argument between art and porn; such an argument is beyond the scope of this review, but it is worth pointing out that there have been relatively few high profile complainers against censorship. Most people will know, or have heard of, Larry Flynt, some may know of Mary Millington, but few will have heard of Mrs Laura Henderson. No where near as high profile as the former names, indeed she never actively campaigned against censorship per se but she did stand firm in her beliefs, and was the first producer to show naked females in Britain in the theatre. This was in the late 1930's to mid 1940's, those that know their history (and I hope you all do) that was the lead up to and during the Second World War. Her show played nightly to servicemen, defying the Blitz, defying the establishment and in doing so created a legacy; and a darn good story to boot. Mrs Henderson Presents is a fictionalised account of this period of her life, it is a fascinating little film about a fascinating lady and one deserving of some attention.
Mrs Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) recently returned frmm India is burying her husband, and, like the British lady she is she holds her emotion for the benefit of the mourners. When travelling back to the house, she detours to her favourite lake, where she finally breaks down. At the wake she announces to her closest friend Lady Conway (Thelma Barlow) she is already bored, whereupon Conway insists that being widowed and rich is the prime of life! Becoming bored very quickly with charitable causes, Mrs Henderson happens upon an old closed down theatre, the Windmill in London's West End. Seeing it as an investment, she buys, refurbishes and hires a theatre manager Mr Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to run the place. The pair have a volatile but direct attitude toward each other, constantly bickering yet always for the best for the theatre, Van Damm goes about selecting and casting for an all day musical variety review “Revudeville”, then a pioneering enterprise. After initial success, subsequent losses are attributed to copycat behaviour from the other theatres, Mrs Henderson, however, has a new idea, naked women. Such a show needs a special licence from the Home Secretary, Lord Cromer (Christopher Guest) himself, luckily Mrs Henderson is on first name terms and manages to secure said license on the condition the ladies is question remain perfectly still, statuesque, “like pictures in an art museum”. Not surprisingly the show becomes an instant success. As the War breaks out, the Windmill remains open, all day everyday, and becomes hugely popular to the servicemen. The fact that the theatre is itself underground also makes it a popular bomb shelter during performances. Even when the establishment try to close it down on the pretext of over crowding a passionate plea from Mrs Henderson, aided by eager crowds, the press and a timely air raid ensure the Windmill remains open; its legacy assured.
Helming Mrs Henderson Presents is Stephen Frears, his résumé includes such critical and commercial successes as The Hit (1984), My Beautiful Launderette (1985), Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and High Fidelity (2000), though for me his best work must be The Comic Strip Presents episode Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, a skilful blend of vulgarity and humour rarely matched and should be considered his best work. As the events depicted actually happened, Frears directs the film scene by scene, event to event, tying everything together with songs from the shows put on by the Windmill. The narrative suffers a little in this respect as there is no sense of building to the climax; rather the film meanders along its series of comic and tragic events with the only constant being Dench's and Hoskins' performances. Thankfully they are uniformly excellent, Dench is especially good, she is effortlessly the part; stern, comedic and touching, she is all this and more, her final speech and motivation for the characters actions is pure class, thoroughly deserving of her academy award nomination. Hoskins, who also holds executive producer position, on the other hand acquits himself admirably standing toe to toe with Dench's performance, his gruff exterior melting in several scenes to show the tenderness underneath; when the pair duke it out on screen there is nothing better. The rest of the cast manage the film admirably, Christopher Guest as the Home Secretary is an excellent choice, his nature with the Henderson character is wonderful, the scene where they discuss the licence is the best of the film; (paraphrased) 'the "foliage" of the girls "midlands" must be discreetly obscured' is perhaps the best line of a film thus far this year. Kelly Reilly as Maureen the main 'star' of the show has some nice moments be that the stripping scene or her dramatic, and tragic, exit. Even Will Young manages to look the part and gets to sing plenty of songs too, if you like that sort of thing. On the whole then the cast maintains the story with integrity; it design and look mirrors the real events and is one of excellence.
Structurally is where the problem lies, slight though that might be. In punctuating the effects of time with the shows songs it does become a little repetitive, the arrival of a song signals another new event unfolding, even not knowing the story, there is little sense of occasion. Frears in his commentary is mindful of the fact but try as he might the repetitive nature is prevalent, perhaps one could pass it off as the repetitive nature of the theatre proper, but it would be stretching the truth. True though the story is, when strung out in a one hundred and three minute film, the plot does run a little thin. Each individual element is succinct, and each touching or comedic in its own right, but stretched over the run time the narrative does suffer slightly. Of course I'm being a tad pedantic, because the film is a joy to watch, it is a simple story with excellent performances, it has a wit and charm seldom matched in today's blockbuster fed hierarchy. Despite my reservations about the structure, I wouldn't change a thing, Mrs Henderson Presents is a terrific gem of a film, deserving of the praise being heaped upon it. A breath of fresh air in the stagnancy of Hollywood, and if that's not enough it's got boobies in it too.
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